University of Kansas Doctoral Student Researches ‘Dean Of African American Painters’
A University of Kansas doctoral student is unraveling the story of Aaron Douglas, the Kansas-born artist who was known as “the dean of African-American painters” in the 1920s and 1930s.
Douglas died at age 79 in 1979 in Nashville, Tenn., where he had taught at Fisk University for 29 years. This June, he was one of three African-American artists from Kansas honored by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and others at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Topeka’s Community Foundation is preparing to recreate one of his most famous murals, and KU’s Spencer Museum of Art plans a major exhibition of his work in 2006.
“Today he barely shows up in the mainstream of art history, but in African-American art history he is central,” says Cheryl Ragar, a doctoral candidate in American studies, who has been researching Douglas’ life and work since 1997. Ragar won a $14,000 Graduate School fellowship this spring to support her dissertation on Douglas’ role in African-American art as an artist and a teacher.
Born in Topeka in 1899, Douglas graduated from Topeka High School in 1917 and earned a fine arts degree at the University of Nebraska. He taught at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Mo., before moving to New York in the mid-1920s, where he worked with W.E.B. Du Bois and other cultural leaders in Harlem.
Douglas, a pioneer African-American visual artist, worked as an illustrator for The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, edited by Du Bois; and for Opportunity, the magazine of the National Urban League.
Ragar’s master’s thesis, “Aspects of Negro Life: From Topeka to Harlem, Forming Aaron Douglas,” focused on Douglas’ early years and his emergence as a Harlem Renaissance artist. Ragar argues that Douglas might be better known if art historians did not attempt to fit his style or subject matter into traditional categories such as expressionism or realism.
Her dissertation focuses on a series of four panels of Douglas’ best-known mural, “Aspects of Negro Life.” Douglas was commissioned to paint the mural in 1934 by the Public Works of Art Project in what was then the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. The site became the Schomburg Center, one of four research libraries of the New York Public Library.
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