HIGHLY REGARDED FOR HIS GRAND MURALS and monumental canvases, artist Aaron Douglas‘s work straddled the visual and literary arts during the Harlem Renaissance. While his depictions of African American history and culture referenced ancient Egyptian motifs and traditional African forms, his graphic style was decidedly modern. Recognized for his silhouetted figures, Douglas’s work was often sought out to illustrate books and publications.

His work appeared in The Crisis, the NAACP publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois; the Urban League’s Opportunity; and Vanity Fair magazine. At the invitation of Alain Locke, Douglas contributed to “The New Negro: An Interpretation” in 1925. The following year, he co-founded and illustrated the cover for “Fire!! a Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro Artists,” a historic publication that only appeared once in November 1926. He also collaborated with Langston Hughes, creating the cover image for the writer’s 1930 novel “Not Without Laughter.”

In May, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced the acquisition of “Let My People Go” (circa 1934-39) by Douglas. The oil on masonite painting is currently on view in the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art galleries. The painting is one of eight he created based on smaller versions developed for “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,” a 1927 poetry collection by James Weldon Johnson. The paintings are among Douglas’s most important works.

As a part of the museum’s Met Collects program, scholar and artist David Driskell discusses “Let My People Go” in the video above.

A respected historian of African American art, Driskell is a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, where the David C. Driskell Center focuses on the study of the visual arts and culture of African Americans and the African diaspora.

Driskell says the Topeka, Kan.-born Douglas came to Harlem to be revitalized. “He had come to Harlem with the notion that this was the place to blossom. This was the place to be revitalized. And so this is a part of what we see [in the painting], the revitalization of his own life experience,” he says. “In the 1920s, African Americans reclaimed their own interests and commitment to the culture of the Americas, but that emphasis was on a return to Africa.”

“He had come to Harlem with the notion that this was the place to blossom. This was the place to be revitalized. And so this is a part of what we see [in the painting], the revitalization of his own life experience.”
— David Driskell via The Met

Douglas lent “Let My People Go” to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” a 1976-77 show that traveled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and the Brooklyn Museum. In 1978, the painting was sold to a private collector in Rhode Island. Earlier this year, the Met acquired the work from that collector through Alexandre Gallery in New York.

At the same time that the Met brought the Douglas painting into its collection, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., acquired “The Judgement Day” by Douglas from the same series and collector.

The Met, which has owned a pair of etchings by Douglas since 1999, also acquired a second edition copy of Johnson’s “God’s Trombones” (1929) for its library. CT

Correction (11/16/15): This post was updated to correct the edition of “God’s Trombones” acquired by the Met. The museum owns a second edition from 1929, not the 1927 first edition.

BOOKSHELF
“Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist” was published in 2007. Including more than 90 images of Douglas’s work, the volume examines his career from the 1920s to 1940s. Douglas also collaborated with a number significant Harlem Renaissance figures—James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, among them—contributing illustrations to their books. These titles include “Not Without Laughter” by Hughes and “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse,” by Johnson, which features the painting “Let My People Go,” the Douglas work acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Aaron Douglas - Installation view Met Museum
Installation view of AARON DOUGLAS, “Let My People Go,” circa 1934-39 (oil on masonite) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. | Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2015. Accession No. 2015.42. © Heirs of Aaron Douglas/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Asron Douglas - Detail Let My People Go
Detail of AARON DOUGLAS, “Let My People Go,” circa 1934-39 (oil on masonite) via Metropolitan Museum of Art.