Perhaps signaling a more adventurous or impatient spirit, Douglas, along with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and others, started a new literary magazine which would take on taboo subjects within the culture such as sexuality and interracial relationships. The idea for the magazine, first suggested by Hughes at a gathering in Aaron and Alta Douglas’s Apt. 7H at 409 Edgecombe Avenue in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, was far more daring than the established publications. Coming on the scene in 1926, Fire!!, subtitled “devoted to younger negro artists,” and based out of Langston Hughes’ room at 318 West 138th Street, made its inaugural (and as it turned out, final) issue under a stunning red-and-black cover designed by Douglas. As Douglas described its genesis, “We are all under thirty. We have no get-rich-quick complexes. We espouse no new theories of racial advancement, socially, economically or politically. We have no axes to grind. We are primarily and intensely devoted to art.”
As it was prescient in its subject matter by perhaps half a century, Fire!! was a controversy in itself, inviting scathing, moralistic critiques. Volume One, Number One of the magazine is considered one of the most important artifacts of the Harlem Renaissance, and remarkably, remains in print today.
Though Fire!! was something of a triumph and disaster in one, the experience did not extinguish Douglas’s spirit. Eight years later, his spec illustration for the never-published follow-on Spark magazine (1934) predicted the raised-fist black power gesture that would come to symbolize the latter stages of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; its depiction of a shackle and broken chain is seen also in his earlier mural “Harriet Tubman” (1930) and is repeated in several other of his works of the period.
Murals are perhaps Douglas’s most enduring and recognized legacy. On enormous canvases, he depicted four stages of African-American cultural change in his extraordinary “Aspects of Negro Life” series. This 1934 work, installed in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, and collectively realized over a surface of almost 250 square feet, represents Douglas at the height of his powers. The individual works, titled “Song of the Towers,” “The Negro in an African Setting,” “An Idyll of the Deep South,” and “From Slavery Through Reconstruction,” portray a deep and varied cycle of African-American experience.
The library is today the home of NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
In 1936, he was commissioned to create four paintings for the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas that would adorn the entrance to its Hall of Negro Life. Two of these works survive today, the square canvases “Into Bondage” (National Gallery of Art, Washington) and “Aspiration” (de Young Gallery, San Francisco).
Also in 1936, Douglas contributed two paintings to his alma mater’s 46th annual Exhibition of Paintings; one of these remains in the university’s possession, part of the permanent collection of the Sheldon Museum of Art. Called “Window Cleaning,” this painting signals a stylistic shift. It depicts a man viewing a street scene from a humble apartment window. Douglas, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, would move to a less aggressive and more-pastoral style along the lines of the Ashcan School, a series of quiet moments captured with a sure brush.
In 2008, the Sheldon acquired four 1926 Douglas woodblock prints, these in his earlier and more well-recognized style, inspired by the Eugene O’Neill play The Emperor Jones.
Douglas left Harlem in 1937 to found the art department at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The historically-black university had been a frequent collaborator with Renaissance artists, and had in fact had Douglas in residence in 1930 to paint murals in that institution’s Cravath Library. He taught at the university until retiring in 1966.
Aaron Douglas died on Feb. 2, 1979, in Nashville.
I refuse to compromise and see blacks as anything but a proud and majestic people.
In 2008, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas brought together 90 of Douglas’s works for a touring retrospective, “Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist,” which was presented in Lawrence, in Nashville at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In 2013, his 1927 work “The Prodigal Son” was selected by the U.S. Postal Service as part of its 12-stamp Modern Art in America series, alongside works of Georgia O’Keefe, Charles DeMuth, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Marsden Hartley.
In 2018, AIGA, the professional association for design, posthumously awarded Douglas its AIGA Medal, the highest honor for American graphic artists.
Douglas’s prolific output of paintings, murals and graphic design represent a lasting contribution to American cultural heritage and to African-American struggle and achievement.
Aaron Douglas Scholarship
These scholarships are awarded to out-of-state students who exhibit superior academic performance. This scholarship pays 25% of nonresident tuition charges.
Aaron Douglas Professorship
These professorships are awarded to faculty at Nebraska who demonstrate sustained and extraordinary levels of teaching excellence and national visibility for instructional activities and/or practice.