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6 Notable Black Artists in History

February is Black History Month. Before the month comes to an end we want to celebrate black artists of note through the centuries. We have compiled a list of black artists who have used a diverse set of media, from paint to photography to sculpture, and more.


 

Edmonia Lewis (c. 1844–c. 1907)

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Edmonia Lewis is known as one of the first professional African America and Native American sculpture in what was considered mainstream art during her time. Lewis first began studying art at Oberlin College in Ohio, but her education came to an early end when she was accused of a crime, captured, and escaped. Eventually these charges were dropped. During her life in Boston, she befriended sculptor Edward A. Brackett who taught her his trade and helped her start her career. In the early 1960s, Lewis’ success began with her plaster medalions of abolitionist leaders. The first sculpture that brought her immense attention, was a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who had died leading the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment, created in 1864.


The 1875 work, Hagar, embodies the Old Testament Egyptian slave Hagar after being ejected from Abraham and Sarah’s home. SAAM, gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
Hagar, 1875, embodies the Old Testament Egyptian slave Hagar after being ejected from Abraham and Sarah’s home. SAAM, gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

The acclaim from this bust allowed her to move and set up her studio in Rome. While in Italy, Lewis continued to explore imagery of African- American and Native American themes. Lewis’ art can be found in the permanent collections of the Howard University Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Fishermen at Sea, ca. 1913, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jesse O. Tanner, 1983.95.215
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Fishermen at Sea, ca. 1913, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jesse O. Tanner, 1983.

Henry Ossawa Tanner studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and was highly influenced by his teacher Thomas Eakins. After spending some time teaching in Atlanta, Georgia, Tanner moved to Paris, where he lived for the rest of his life. Tanner primarily depicted African American and religious scenes in his paintings. His most famous paintings are "Nicodemus Visiting Jesus," "The Banjo Lesson" and "The Thankful Poor".

 

James Van Der Zee (1886–1983)

James Van Der Zee, Daisye, 1931, gelatin silver print with applied color, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Avalon Fund © 1969 Van Der Zee
James Van Der Zee, Daisye, 1931, gelatin silver print with applied color, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Avalon Fund © 1969 Van Der Zee

Born in Massachusetts, James Van Der Zee developed his passion for photography in high school. Once he moved to Virginia in 1907, Van Der Zee began working as a photographer for the Hampton Institute. He then moved to Harlem, New York and began working as a light room assistant. In 1916, he opened his own photo studio in Harlem. During the 1920s and 1930s, Van Der Zee photographed hundreds of Harlemites of all backgrounds and occupations. From African American celebrities to the working class.

 

Faith Ringgold (1930 - )

Faith Ringgold, Acrylic on canvas and printed, dyed and pieced fabric, 73 x 73 in.
Faith Ringgold, Maya's Quilt of Life, 1989, Acrylic on canvas and printed, dyed and pieced fabric, 73 x 73 in.

Faith Ringgold (born Faith Will Jones) is from Harlem, New York. She became interested in art during high school and studied art education at City College of New York. While teaching art in the public school system, she returned to college and got her M.A. in art. In the 1960s, Ringgold’s art career started by creating paintings focused on the civil rights movement. In the 1970s, Ringgold discovered Tibetan thangka in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and was inspired to begin incorporating fabric into her own art. In the 1980s, she turned to quilt-making as a narrative form of art. It is for her quilts that she is most often remembered.

 

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, from Brooklyn, New York, was a self-taught artist. He father was Haitian-American and mother was Puerto Rican. His heritage was a major inspiration for his art. He first drew attention to his art working under the tag “SAMO” creating graffiti in the 1970s on New York trains and Manhattan buildings.

Basquiat, With Strings Two, 1983, acrylic, and oilstick on canvas 96 x 60 in.
Basquiat, With Strings Two, 1983, acrylic, and oilstick on canvas 96 x 60 in.

His early work is known for incorporating crown iconography, celebrating Black people as royalty. Artist Francesco Clemente stated: "Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age."


In the 1980s, Basquiat acclaim grew as he was exhibited in a group show alongside Neo-Expressionist artists, where he was appreciated for his use of symbolism, animals, and words.

 

Kara Walker (1969 - )


Kara Walker was born in California and later moved to Atlanta, Georgia with her family. She received her B.A. in painting and printmaking from the Atlanta Collage of Art. She later received her Master’s from Rhode Island School of Design. While she initially wanted to explore the realm of fine art, she fell in love with amore avant-garde style. She is best known for her silhouette form artwork in the 1990s. She primarily uses a variety of paper silhouettes to tell a story. Her art career truly started with a paper silhouette mural at the Drawing Center in New York City, entitled "Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart."

The Katastwóf Karavan. Prospect4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, Algiers Point, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Kara Walker, The Katastwóf Karavan. Prospect4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, Algiers Point, New Orleans, Louisiana.

In 2007, Kara Walker was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 for that year.

“Walker's vigilance has produced a compelling reckoning with the twisted trajectories of race in America… They create a profusion of backstories and revisions that slash and burn through the pieties of patriotism and the glosses of "color blindness."… She plays with stereotypes, turning them upside down, spread-eagle and inside out. She revels in cruelty and laughter. Platitudes sicken her. She is brave. Her silhouettes throw themselves against the wall and don't blink.”

Kruger, 2007, TIME Magazine



 

There are many influential black artists throughout the previous centuries. Everyone on this list has made a difference in the art style and culture in America. If you want to learn how to support Black Artisans, you can check out that list here.


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Sydney Davis-Campos is the Virtual Learning Coordinator at Able ARTS Work, Learn for Life. She has a B.A. in Studio Art and Art History. Sydney has worked at Able ARTS Work for almost 5 years where she has also held the positions of Art Instructor and an Assistant Program Manager.

 

Sources:

Barnes, Sara, Kelly Richman-Abdou, and Jessica Stewart. “10 Groundbreaking African American Artists That Shaped History.” My Modern Met, February 10, 2022. https://mymodernmet.com/african-american-artists/.


Basquiat, Jean-Michel. “With Strings Two.” With Strings Two - Jean‐Michel Basquiat | The Broad. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.thebroad.org/art/jean-michel-basquiat/strings-two.


“Famous Black Artists.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, January 29, 2020. https://www.biography.com/people/groups/black-artists.


“James Van Der Zee's Photographs: A Portrait of Harlem.” National Gallery of Art. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2021/james-van-der-zee-photographs-portrait-harlem.html.


Kara Walker. Accessed February 25, 2022. http://www.karawalkerstudio.com/.


Kara Walker: Starting Out | Art21 "Extended Play". Art21, 2014. Kara Walker: Starting Out | Art21 "Extended Play".


Kruger, Barbara. “The 2007 Time 100.” Time. Time Inc., May 3, 2007. http://content.time.com/time/specials/2007/time100/article/0,28804,1595326_1595332_1616818,00.html.


Ringgold, Faith. “Art.” Faith Ringgold. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://www.faithringgold.com/art/.


“Sculptor Edmonia Lewis Shattered Gender and Race Expectations in 19th-Century America.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, August 22, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/sculptor-edmonia-lewis-shattered-gender-race-expectations-19th-century-america-180972934/.


Tanner, Henry Ossawa. “Fishermen at Sea.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed February 25, 2022. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/fishermen-sea-23651.

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