Visual Arts During Harlem Renaissance: Critical Essay

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For centuries, designers have been using visual art to express their feelings, inform others, and communicate with the masses to spread their message. Evidence of visual art can be traced back to the prehistoric Era, where pictographs were painted on cave walls to convey information to one another as seen in the Magura Cave in France depicting animals, humans, and other artifacts (European Regional Development Fund, 2019). Yet, in graphic design, nothing can be more aesthetically and visually appealing than the glitz and glamour of the Art Deco 1920s. Art Deco represented wealth, power, glamour, and modernity, no graphic designers were more prominent in this era than Aaron Douglas and A.M Cassandre. Douglas, a black painter and visual arts professor helped catapult the Harlem Renaissance into the black oasis that we know today. He uses various avenues such as paintings and posters to endorse black excellence and awareness in an effort to showcase the importance of black history in America. A.M Cassandre was a Ukrainian graphic designer who studied at France Ecole des Beaux-Arts paving the way for him to create his own graphics studio where he used his posters to bridge the gap between fine art and commercial art. Inspired by Art Nouveau, his methods and styles in art helped popularize the Art Deco movement in France and then onto the world. He later co-founded an advertisement company where he began experimenting with typefaces, which he later developed and exhibited in 1937 at the World’s Fair in France.

Aaron Douglas was born in Topeka, Kanas in 1899, he developed an interest in arts at an early age due in part to his mother who had a passion for watercolor painting. He later graduated from Topeka High School where he then attended the University of Nebraska, Lincoln pursuing and earning a degree in Fine Arts. After earning his degree, Douglas spent two years at Lincoln High School in Nebraska where he taught art classes focusing on drawing, painting, and stenciling. In addition to teaching, Douglas also served as a mentor to the University’s Arts Club being one of the only African Americans in the department. Due to the restrictions that came along with the color of his skin, Aaron relocated to New York City in 1925, where he was captivated by the thriving arts and culture atmosphere in Harlem where he recalls “There are so many things that I had seen for the first time, seeing a big city that was entirely black, impressed by the fact that black people were in charge of things and this would be the center for the Great American Culture” (American Institute of Graphic Design, 2019). He then won a scholarship to study with German designer Winold Reiss who encouraged Douglas to use his African heritage for inspiration.

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Douglas's signature style was soon characterized by elegant, rhythmic silhouettes showcased in the NAACP Magazine “Opportunity”. In his early pieces of work, he depicts marginalized people's everyday struggles in society, an image that is often synonymous with the black experience in America. Douglas didn’t gain recognition until he was commissioned by Alain LeRoy to produce illustrations for his book “The New Negro”. Due to its popularity and success, the book dubbed Douglas as one the most sought-after illustrators in Harlem nevertheless catching the attention of many noble authors such as Langton Hughes, Countee Cullen, and James Weldon Johnson. Gaining such recognition helped land Douglas the gig of creating illustrations for widespread magazines such as Vanity Fair and Harper’s during the early part of his career (National Gallery of Art, 2019).

Douglas's extraordinary style uses flat, one-dimensional renderings and silhouetted figures. He also incorporated other elements such as plants created from simplified shapes, pyramids, and sphinx-like lions referencing ancient Egypt and African culture in an effort to steer away from traditional realism and towards a new symbolic approach/representation. For example, in the book cover for James Weldon Johnson’s “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” Douglas uses plain geometric shapes to create high-rise buildings and flat smokestacks while a black silhouette figure sits on top of a hill overlooking the skyline of the city. Douglas used clever graphic design art like this to represent the great migration of African Americans relocating from rural areas to urban centers and transitioning to industrial life. This new method of depicting black life was instantly embraced while his black-painted silhouettes became the symbol of the Harlem Renaissance. Similar artwork was featured in many of his illustrations including the work he did for the NAACP publications, Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, and articles of clothing earning him one of the prominent artists during this era (The Art Stroy Foundation, 2019).

Douglas relocated from Harlem to Nashville when long-time friend Charles S. Johnson, the first black president at Fisk University asked Douglas to create an Art Department. Through the creation of the art department, he encouraged students to embrace analyze history and embrace black awareness, where he served as the chairman for 29 years before retiring.

Over his career, Douglas designed numerous paintings, posters, and murals including his series of murals commissioned in New York City 135th Street library dubbed as “The Negro in an African Setting (Aspects of Negro Life – 1934)” shown in figure 1. He used his signature darkened silhouettes and one-dimensional plane and minimum color variation while paying recent to ancient Egyptian art such as heads in profile while bodies are centered. Sadly, Douglas died in 1979, leaving behind the legacy of black awareness and art during a time when African Americans were gaining social mobility and economic prosperity thus resulting in the Harlem Renaissance being one of the most influential movements for black art, music, and entertainment next to the civil rights era (Vechten, 1979).

Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, better known as A.M Cassandre was born in 1901 in Kharkiv, Ukraine to French parents. They spent much of their early life roaming between France and Russia before finally settling in Paris. During this time, he enrolled in Éole des Beaux-Arts to pursue a career in art in addition to attending the studio of Lucien Simon and l’Académie. After receiving his degree, he sought to open his own studio where he could focus on the field of graphic design and artistry earning him a well-respected name around Paris (Mouron, 1985). He started out designing advertisement posters in the late 1910s which presented the opportunity for him to work at a printing house in Paris where he started signing his work “Cassandre”.

He gained notoriety by designing many popular posters throughout France including his famous “Normandie” poster for the oceanic transportation company. During this period, graphic design was key in promoting anything due to the high popularity and success visual art like paintings and posters had in catching the public’s attention. His early style was influenced by cubism and surrealism in addition to the Bauhaus art movement. He later embroiders all these elements to create a new modernist style known as Art Deco. He used stencils and an airbrush to create his stylized portrait in addition to large areas of flat color with simple geometric shapes and defined hard straight lines. Some of his work can be attributed to both Art Deco and advertising art creating Cassandre's unique style.

His designs greatly influenced advertising art in the first half of the 20th century where he gained a reputation for his quality work. Cassandre was one of the first graphic designers to introduce serial posters such as his poster for Dubonnet wine Company “Dubo Dubon Dubonnet” shown in Figure 2. Cassandre used his distinct airbrushed texture in addition to making the figure outline more streamlined and geometrically proportioned, he also used very minimum color variation. After opening his studio, Cassandre began to develop and practice with different Art Deco typefaces. He created several typeface styles including Bifur which he developed for Deberny & Peignot which was printed later that year in 1929. He also developed other sans serifs typefaces such as Acier Noir and an all-purpose typeface Peignot that he exhibited in Paris in 1937 during the height of the Art Deco movement.

Due to his superior talent, he obtained a position to mentor at École des Arts Décoratifs and École d’Art Graphique in Paris where he taught graphic design. Cassandre joined the army during WWII after he then helped designed theatrical stage sets and magazine covers in addition to being contracted to design Yves Saint Laurent's (YSL) clothing logo. Cassandre passion for art helped catapult his career he designs various posters and typefaces that not only transformed advertisement but the world itself. His methods and styles encouraged the public to embrace the Art Deco movement. Yet, his true talent and skills show ultimately with the development of an all-purpose typeface he believed “Designing a poster means solving a technical and commercial problem…in a language that can be understood by the common man.” Resulting in the development of various Art Deco-inspired typefaces

When comparing both Douglas and Cassandre it is evident that they were both influenced by the Art Deco movement. Both artists use elements such as geometric shapes, curves, sunbursts, and airbrushed ray bands when designing posters or paintings. Although Cassandre and Douglas used different methods when producing their work Cassandre preferred airbrush techniques accompanied by stenciled elements expressing a hint of realism in his art. Douglas, on the other hand, used geometric shapes and dark one-dimensional silhouettes to represent people and other objects. Both designers kept color and tone variation to a minimum as they use elements of cubism and modernism which were inspired by cubism, futurism, and constructivism. Douglas used his platform to bring awareness to the black community through various illustrations while Cassandre helped promote travel and transportation through various posters and advertisement agencies. Both Douglas and Cassandre focused the majority of their work on bringing awareness to the public whether it be one of Douglas encouraging African Americans to learn more about their history or one of Cassandre promoting the people to travel on Normandy Ocean liners.

In closing, the Art Deco movement was one of the most influential art movements in history, it emerged from jazz clubs of the 1930s; which offered luxury, extravagance, glamour, machine age, and consumerism. Dubbed as streamlined, many early spectators believed the art deco was far too radical but with clever branding many designers such as Aaron Douglas and A.M. Cassandre were successful at pioneering many of the design elements that many associate with wealth, glamour, and power of the 1920s. Thus assisting the introduction of Art Deco to the world at the Exposition International des Arts DEcoratifs Industriels et Modernes in Paris in 1925.

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Visual Arts During Harlem Renaissance: Critical Essay. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from
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