Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

San Francisco, California

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Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance


January 17-March 8, 1998, California Palace of the Legion of Honor

Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance examines a key moment in 20th-century history and brings together approximately 130 paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, and drawings, with rare archival film and sound recordings of the period.

Cocktails, c. 1926, Archibald Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), oil on canvas 32 x 40 inches, John P. Axelrod, Boston, Mass. Copyright Archie Motley





As the Jazz Age dawned in the early 1920s, African American artists, writers, and musicians flocked to the neighborhood of Manhattan called Harlem. This "Mecca of the New Negro" soon became home to a cultural revolution, known first as the "New Negro Renaissance" and later termed the "Harlem Renaissance." Repercussions of this cultural revolution, which embraced white as well as black artists, were felt around the world. Its sphere of influence extended from the United States to Europe--most notably in Jazz Age Paris--Africa, and the Caribbean. The rich artistic legacy of the Harlem Renaissance ranges from the paintings of Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence to the music of Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith to the writings of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

During the boom years of the 1920s, Harlem was a center for fashion, entertainment, and nightlife for African Americans escaping the segregation, racial persecution, and economic deprivation of the deep South. Taking their inspiration from Harlem's political and cultural milieu and from the responses to African art in Europe, artists contributed to Harlem's excitement by creating art that affirmed their identity and introduced black themes into American modernism. The "New Negro Movement" that flourished there and led to the Harlem Renaissance encompassed not only art, literature, music, film, and theater. It was also manifested by the social freedom of Harlem nightlife and the pursuit of hedonism, image-building and race-building, jazz poetics, progressive or socialist politics, racial integration, and Africa as a source of race pride.

Brown Girl After the Bath, 1931, Arthur J. Motley, Jr. (1891-1981), oil on canvas, 36 x 48 1/4 inches, Collection of Archie Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne, Copyright Arthur Motley.





The Harlem Renaissance, while centered in a particular section of New York City, was a product of broad national and international social, political, and cultural influences. This renaissance also occurred simultaneously in a number of other urban centers, spawning important artistic enclaves in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Many of Harlem's cultural elite and artistic leaders came from these cities and maintained strong ties with them, resulting in a nationwide surge of black group consciousness that has reverberated throughout American culture to the present day.


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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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