The Souls of Black Art - the Spirit Creative

An Overview of the History of African American Art
and Black Artists - Series 1, Part 4.

Written by Kamau Austin and Edited by Carol Austin

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Duncanson became mentally ill in 1870 and died in December of 1872. Some speculate that his illness was a result of the lead based paints that he had used as an apprentice house painter. Duncanson, was the first black artist to gain national and international acclaim and some considered him the best landscape artist of the west. He prefigured great black artist to come.

Introducing Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage born Augusta Fells , her maiden name, started molding mud pies at about six years old. She was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida in the 1890's. Although her father, a fundamentalist preacher, did not care for her natural inclination to the arts, she continued to develop her artistic skills. After a while her father began to accept her obvious talents. By high school she was showing so much promise that she was hired to teach clay modeling to her classmates.

Savage Moves to New York to Develop
her Black Art Career Focusing on Sculpture

Her subsequent years were first given mainly over to marriage and domestic life. She never stopped working in clay despite her domestic family duties. In 1919 she won a sculpture prize at the Palm Beach County Fair. The next year, at 28 years of age, she moved to New York City, with only $4.60 in her pocket and a letter of introduction that helped her get into Copper Union. Cooper Union, was a tuition-free art school. At Cooper Union she studied with sculptor George Brewster from 1921 to 1924. She then had a very challenging life at this point, in large measure to racism.

Racism Challenges the
Career of Augusta Savage

Savage completed the 4 year course, at Cooper Union, in 3 years while taking on menial jobs and small scholarships to make ends meet. It was during this time that she was admitted to the Fountainbleau School of Fine Arts Summer School for American Architects, Painters, and Sculptors in 1923. This special program was started by the French Government to be admit students outside of Paris. Nevertheless, she was denied admission when it was learned that she was an African American.

"Although admitted to the Fountainbleau School of Fine Arts Summer School for American Architects, Painters, and Sculptors in 1923, she was denied admission when it was learned that she was an African American ..."

Quote Source: Against the Odds
African - American Artists and the Harmon Foundation Page 251

When she pressed for a reason for being turned down for the Fountainbleau program, she was told that white students from the south might object to traveling and studying with a black women. The Chairman of the decision committee tried to defuse the charged racial overtones of this travesty. He stated that she might find the situation "embarrassing". This act of of racism became a cause for protest from Savage and other black luminaries such a W.E.B. Du Bois and Ernestine Rose (a librarian at the 135th Street Branch of the Public Library). Savage also in response, wrote a letter of protest published in the New York World.

A sea of letters and editorial of supportive protest flooded in to support her position but, it was all to no avail. Savage was left behind, with her heart heavy, as the other students set sail for France. This act of racism did not derail her dreams. She would later make it to France despite this set back.

Augusta Shows Spirited Determination

Showing great spirit and determination, she developed her professional career as and artist with alacrity during and after her Copper Union training. She received several commissions and sculpting busts of W.E.B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey, which were well received. From this she took considerable encouragement to develop her art career further. She continued to study privately with noted sculptors Onorio Ruotolo and Hermon A. MacNeil (then President of the National Sculpture Society).

Savage Finally Makes it to Paris

Savage had another set back in 1926, when she was accepted for a fellowship by the Italian-Amerian Society to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Unfortunately she had to decline the prestigious offer due to insufficient funds. Nevertheless, in 1929, she was awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship to study abroad. Her jubilant supports gave parties as fundraisers to pay for her expenses and therefore, Augusta Savage finally made it to Paris.

Subsequently, she received the Julius Rosenwald Foundation and Carnegie Foundation fellowships for study abroad also in 1930, and 1931. In Paris she studied at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere with Felix Benneteau. Once in Paris she was very successful. She won citations for her art work and was exhibited in top Paris Salons and Galleries. Savage returned to New York in 1932, and had an exhibit at the Anderson Art Galleries. However, the stifling affects of the Depression era began to impact the United States and hindered her financial viability.

Nurturing the Next Generation of
African American Art and Black Artist

Savage began to re-channel her energies into teaching other black artists like William Artis, Norman Lewis, and Ernest Crichlow after establishing Savage Studio of the arts in 1932. Perhaps even more important was her role in advocating for fair treatment for African American Artists in the Depression-era work programs the Roosevelt administration had created. The purpose of these programs was to keep people in the arts from starving. She became head of the Harlem Community Art Center, one of the largest government sponsored art programs in the country. Subsequently she was appointed assistant supervisor of the Federal Arts Project for New York City. She fought for the inclusion of black artists in these New York City programs.

Augusta Savage a Great Black Artist and a Transitional figure for African American Art

Savage's spirited activism within very racist times took a toll on her. She sacrificed her career to help nurture the following generation of talented African American artists who in turn created outstanding Black art. Augusta Savage lived to 70 years of age however, she was a profession sculptor less than 20 years. Few of her original works have been located. Augusta Savage, is one of several transitional Black artists we will profile before exploring the New Negro Arts Movement (also known as the Harlem Renaissance).

Henry O Tanner, really became the first Black Artist to become a Truly International Sensation Click here to read more...


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