Celebrate Black History Month with These 12 Amazing American Artists
In February we celebrate and commemorate the history of African Americans in the United States. What better way to do that than with art? The history is fraught with racism but also represents major contributions to art, music, and culture by a minority group that faced (and still faces) unfair treatment by the majority culture. Seeing the history of the United States through the lens of Black history lets us see not only the country’s faults but also its great capacity for creativity and innovation.
Artists such as Edmonia Lewis, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Alma Thomas, Jacob Lawrence, and many others, influenced American culture, working at pivotal times in history. Their art covers abolitionism, the Great Migration, World War I and II, the Civil Rights movement, and modern themes of Black Lives Matter. The artists narrated the challenging times that they lived though, creating new art forms as they worked. The importance of Black artists should be celebrated during Black History Month and every month of the year.
#1. Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844–1907)
Edmonia Lewis, who also went by the name “Wildfire,” was an American sculptor who worked in a Neoclassical style creating detailed marble sculptors. Her themes included stories from classical antiquity as well as from the lives of Black and Native American people. Her father was African American and her mother was of Mississauga Ojibwe and African American descent. One of her most famous works is a bust of the legendary Native American leader, Hiawatha.
Although Lewis was born during the time of slavery, she was born into a free family and lived with her half brother, Samuel, and her aunts near Niagara Falls, New York, where they sold Ojibwe baskets, moccasins, and embroidered-blouses. During this time, Lewis went by her Native American name, Wildfire, while her brother was called Sunshine. Both her parents died when she was a child.
In 1852, Samuel Lewis left for San Francisco, California, where he made a fortune in the gold rush. He paid for Edmonia to go to finishing school and Oberlin College. After college, Lewis moved to Boston where she began her career as a sculptor.
Abolitionists, in particular, took an interest in her work and helped her find a sculpture instructor. Her subjects in the 1860s included some of the most famous abolitionists of her day, such as John Brown, who led the raid on Harpers Ferry that preceded the Civil War, and Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded one of the first all-Black regiments, the 54th Massachusetts.
Lewis later moved to Europe and worked for many years in Rome. There, she sculpted themes from history, mythology, and the Bible as well as characters from her Native and African American heritage.
#2. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937)
Henry Ossawa Tanner was another Black American artist who worked for much of his career in Europe, where he faced less bias than he would have in the United States. He moved to Paris in 1891 to study at the Académie Julian and earned acclaim in French artistic circles. His 1896 painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den was accepted into the 1896 Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He covered the same topic again in a painting created sometime between 1907 and 1918.
After pursuing art on his own as a young man, Tanner enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1879. The only Black student, he became a favorite of the painter Thomas Eakins, who had recently started teaching there. After moving to France, Tanner continued to work on paintings with a religious theme, but he also painted scenes he encountered in his daily life
#3. Horace Pippin (1888–1946)
With the work of Horace Pippin, we see the influence of modern art as well as the influence of realism and folk art. Pippin was a self-taught artist. His work illustrates the lives of African Americans in small-town rural life and includes a variety of other subjects as well. Like Edmonia Lewis, he depicted the famous abolitionist John Brown. He also painted self-portraits, Biblical themes, and Victorian interiors.
Pippin fought in World War I serving with the famous Harlem Hellfighters, an all Black infantry. He documented segregation in the military during his service through sketched journals. He sustained an injury to his right arm in the war and first painted with his injured hand using a hot poker to create designs on wood. After success with these creations, he decided to try painting with oil paints. He used his left hand to guide his injured right hand, which held the paintbrush. It took him three years to finish his first painting.
Horace Pippin’s art received high acclaim throughout his life and was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Tate Britain in London. The Horace Pippin print that shows a family giving thanks before a meal decorates many homes in the U.S.
#4. Alma Thomas (1891–1978)
Alma Thomas celebrated bright colors in her textured, abstract works. She loved the natural world, painting Pansies in Washington, Peonies, and Wind, Sunshine and Flowers. In the 1960s she wrote “The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” (The Smithsonian, Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001, Box 2, Folder 7.) Note her sense of joy in Tiptoe Through the Tulips.
Thomas was mostly apolitical in her art, but not apolitical in her life. In 1963 she walked in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the famous march attended by more than 200,000 people where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Thomas depicted this historic event in a 1964 painting which was also used in a 2005 U.S. postage stamp that commemorated the march.
Thomas’s adopted hometown of Washington DC was her artistic epicenter. She migrated with her family in 1907 from Columbus, Georgia, to Washington DC as part of the Great Migration, and lived there for her entire life. She graduated from Howard University in 1924, becoming the first graduate of Howard’s Art Department. She taught art in the public schools of Washington DC for 36 years and wasn’t recognized as a professional artist until after she retired in her late 60s.
In Fall 2021, cultural and educational institutions across Washington, D.C. began celebrating Alma Thomas with a variety of programs, events, and a major exhibition at The Phillips Collection. The exhibition, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” was organized by the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. The exhibition travels to the Frist Museum in Nashville, Tennessee from February 25 to June 5, 2022, and to Columbus, Georgia from July 1 to September 25, 2022.
#5. Aaron Douglas (1899–1979)
Aaron Douglas was one of the most influential and well-known artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a painter, illustrator, portraitist, and muralist. He was the founder of the Art Department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and taught visual art classes there until his retirement in 1966.
Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas and grew up in a segregated school system. After graduating from high school he worked in a glass factory before enrolling at the University of Nebraska. In 1922, he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 1925, Douglas intended to pass through Harlem on his way to Paris to learn new techniques. However, he decided to stay to develop his art as a member of the Harlem Renaissance. The writings of Alain Locke about the importance of Harlem for aspiring African Americans inspired Douglas. After teaching at Fisk during the 1930s he completed a Master of Arts degree at Teachers College, Columbia University in 1944. He then was appointed chairman of the art department at Fisk.
Douglas became known for incorporating African imagery into illustrations of modern scenes of music and dance. Congo, painted in 1928, was done in an art deco style and depicts people dancing in a Congo line.
#6. Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
Romare Bearden was an artist, author, and songwriter. He worked with many types of media including cartoons, oils, and collages. Bearden was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. Around 1915, his family followed the Great Migration to the North. He grew up in New York City and Pittsburgh, and graduated from New York University in 1935.
Bearden served in the U.S. Army during World War II in Europe. Upon his return home, he joined the influential Samuel Kootz Gallery, a commercial gallery in New York that featured avant-garde art. Romare Bearden paintings from this time are in the expressionist and semi-abstract genres. He returned to Europe in 1950 to study philosophy and art history at the Sorbonne under the auspices of the G.I. Bill. He traveled throughout Europe, visiting Picasso and other artists.
From the mid-1930s through the 1960s, Bearden was a social worker with the New York City Department of Social Services, creating his art at night and on weekends. His success as an artist was recognized with his first solo exhibition in Harlem in 1940 and his first solo show in Washington, D.C. in 1944. Bearden’s art was exhibited during his lifetime throughout the United States and Europe. His work depicted his childhood in North Carolina, his life in Harlem, and stories from historical, literary, and musical sources.
Jammin’ at the Savoy is a collage of jazz musicians playing their instruments at the famed Savoy Ballroom, a popular jazz nightclub in Harlem.
#7. Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
Jacob Lawrence is among the best-known African American painters. In fact, due to his significance, we wrote an entire blog about him, called, Jacob Lawrence: Reluctant Rebel, Renaissance Artist. Lawrence was married to fellow artist Gwendolyn Knight. Both artists celebrated the lives, culture, and history of African Americans through their paintings
Lawrence painted scenes from the Great Migration, showcasing the challenges of the millions of African Americans who migrated from the cotton fields and farms of the Southern United States to Northern, Midwestern, and Western cities between 1916 and 1970.
Lawrence served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and in the years afterward, suffered from postwar trauma and depression. In 1949, just as New York’s avant-garde art scene was exploding, he checked himself into Hillside Hospital in Queens where he stayed almost a year.
Lawrence emerged from his depression by reading and planning for a new series to follow the success of his Migration Series. He immersed himself in the poetry of Walt Whitman and popular American histories. During long sessions at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library (now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), he planned his most ambitious project yet, his Struggle Series.
Panels in the Struggle Series depict classic stories about the Boston Tea Party, the ride of Paul Revere, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Washington crossing the Delaware, but also show Black, female, and Native protagonists and lesser-known quotations from American colonialists who did not support slavery.
#8. Rose Piper (1917–2005)
A history of the African diaspora in the U.S. is inextricably linked to 20th century music, from blues to jazz to hiphop. Our next artist, Rose Piper, is best known for her blues-inspired work. She had her first major solo exhibition, titled “Blues and Negro Folk Songs,” in 1947 at the Roko Gallery in New York. At the time, she was one of only four African American artists who had exhibited abstract work in New York. In 1948, her work was also included in the prestigious “Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture and Prints by Negro Artists” at Atlanta University. Fellow exhibitors included Jacob Lawrence and Hale Woodruff.
Piper painted Slow Down, Freight Train in 1946 or 1947. The title refers to “Freight Train Blues,” a recording by Trixie Smith who sang about the sadness of women who were left behind by men who hopped freight trains to the North during the Great Migration.
Rose Piper was born in New York in 1917 and grew up in the Bronx. Her father was a public schoolteacher who taught Latin and Greek. She studied art and geometry at Hunter College. After graduating in 1940, she attended the Arts Students League of New York.
Like Alma Thomas, Rose Piper was unable to focus on her artwork during the prime of her life. Her mid-career was interrupted by financial hardship and family obligations, leading her to put her painting on hold and to turn to other careers. She ran a greeting card company, worked as a textile designer, and raised her family. For nearly thirty years, she worked as Rose Ransier, designing knit fabrics. She returned to painting in the 1980s, creating a new and distinct body of work that references the styles of the Flemish School of painting and medieval illuminated manuscripts.
#9. David Driskell (1931–2020)
David Driskell was an American artist and scholar. He helped establish African American Art as an independent field of study, and was an authority in the field, teaching at Howard University, Fisk University, and the University of Maryland. Driskell attended Howard University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955. In 1962, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University.
Driskell held the title of Distinguished University Professor of Art at the University of Maryland, College Park, and was chair of the department from 1978 to 1983. In 2001, he was honored with the naming of the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at UMD, which presents exhibitions on African American art and holds the Driskell archive.
Driskell created paintings, drawings, collage, and prints, often combining these into mixed media work. He worked both abstractly and figuratively, and used a wide range of materials including oils, acrylic, egg tempera, gouache, ink, marker, and collage. He worked on paper and on stretched and unstretched canvas. His subject matter ranged from portraits of jazz singers, African gods and rituals, urban life, to landscapes around his summer home in Maine.
One of his best-known works is a portrait of his friend and mentor, artist Romare Bearden.
Driskell died in Washington, D.C. in April 2020 due to complications from COVID-19. An exhibition of his work, “Icons of Nature and History,” is traveling around the U.S. making stops at The Phillips Collection, the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. The Phillips Collection celebrated Alma Thomas and David Driskell together and has published a lot of content about them, including this YouTube video.
#10. Gerald Williams (born 1941)
Gerald Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1941. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Howard University in 1976. He was a founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), an artist collective formed on the south side of Chicago in 1967 which became the definitive visual expression of the Black Arts Movement. His work was featured in the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which was organized by the Tate Modern in London and travelled around the United States. It celebrated art made by Black artists during the 1960s and 1970s when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse. Williams’ painting Nation Time was included in the exhibit.
Gerald Williams paintings have been featured in exhibitions all over the world. In addition to being an artist, Williams served in the Peace Corps, taught public school, and served as an Arts and Crafts Center Director for the United States Air Force. In 2015, Williams was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Philosophy in Art by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, along with his co-founders of AfriCOBRA, Jae Jarrell, and Wadsworth Jarrell.
#11. Faith Ringgold (born 1930)
Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930, just as the Harlem Renaissance was starting to wane. She grew up surrounded by art and culture, and learned to sew from her mother, a fashion designer. Some of her most famous work showcases sewing and quilt-making and depicts African American history in unexpected ways.
Ringgold earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts degrees in visual art from the City College of New York in 1955 and 1959. She is Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California San Diego and has received 23 Honorary Doctorates. To learn more about this artist, be sure to read our blog post dedicated to her life and work called Dancing at the Louvre: From Faith Ringgold to Beyoncé.
In the 1960s, Ringgold focused on racial and political themes and produced an astonishing body of work including her American People Series which depicts a racially-divided nation struggling to accept racial justice and Black power. A Ringgold painting that got a lot of attention at this time was her controversial American People Series #20: Die, 1967, which shows a bloody riot.
Ringgold has said that she was inspired to paint Die by what was happening in the streets of America in 1967, the news media was not showing the violence that was happening at the riots. She was also inspired by Picasso’s Guernica. Ringgold studied Picasso’s monumental 1937 depiction of the tragedies of war at the Museum of Modern Art when the painting was on long-term loan to the museum from 1939 to 1981.
In the later part of her career, Ringgold moved away from blatant political statements and started to show optimistic presentations of black female heroines and depictions of ordinary scenes from Black lives. She portrayed weddings, jazz clubs, and Michael Jackson dancing. Her choice of medium was quilts, a traditional American craft, shared by Black and White women, especially working-class women. In her story quilts, she retold the story of Aunt Jemima and showed us a family celebrating on their “tar beach” (the roof of their apartment building).
Ringgold’s 2010 Dear Selma silkscreen is about Selma Burke, an African American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance artists who is best-known for her bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A version of this portrait appears on the American dime. Although the dime’s credited artist, John R. Sinnock, denies that Burke’s portrait was an influence, one can see the similarities, as explained in this Atlas Obscura article.
Also in 2010, Faith Ringgold honored another of our favorite African American artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
#12. James Little (Born 1952)
James Little earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Memphis Academy of Art in 1974 and a Master of Fine Arts from Syracuse University in 1976. Known as a “defiant abstractionist,” Little makes all his own paints and mixes beeswax and varnish into them. His work earned him the Pollock-Krasner Award in 2000 and the Joan Mitchell Foundation Award in Painting in 2009.
In 2017, Little was interviewed for BOMB Magazine’ Oral History Project, a program dedicated to collecting, developing, and preserving the stories of distinguished visual artists of the African diaspora. In the interview, Little talks about growing up in a very segregated Memphis.
Little says that he does not portray racial issues in his work, partly because he still bears the scars of racism and discrimination. In the interview he says, “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t deal with race in my work. I’ve had such bad experiences with that stuff that I just want to get around it and try to show just straight excellence. Take it for what it’s worth, like it or not, but I strictly base my work on quality, skill, intuition, and vision.” In this sense, he’s like Alma Thomas who was apolitical with most of her work.
Little was inspired by Alma Thomas and the other artists we have mentioned in this blog. Notice the similarities in his Double Exposure painting with the works of Alma Thomas. Also notice, though, that like lots of the artists we covered, his chosen art form, oil and wax on the canvas to create vibrating colors, is very innovative.
Celebrate Art and History with 1000Museums
Although February is set aside as the month for studying and celebrating Black history, there’s never a bad time to learn more about this history. The history of African Americans is the history of the United States, with all its faults, revolutionary successes, and influence on worldwide culture. We hope you agree that studying history is especially meaningful when you can look at art created by those who lived the history and documented it for contemporary and future viewers.
Interested in more art by Black artists? View our favorites by clicking here.