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Honoring Black History Month 2024

How African Art Changed The Face of Modern Art

As we close out Black History Month, we wanted to pay homage to the influence of African Art and African American Artists on our visual heritage. This deep-dive into how African Art influenced the modern art movement was intended for our classes to learn from this rich history. It was our way to celebrate and honor Black History month, given its importance in the current 2024 landscape.

What our drawing members uncovered together was how African art changed the face of art in Europe and beyond.

While the influence of African art was taking place in Paris, an equally compelling history was taking place here in America. The more we dove into the richness of black history and its influence on modern art, the more we realized we cannot fully pay it the homage it deserves. Even though we are only scratching the surface of its full impact, we hope you will still enjoy this as much as we did compiling it.

If you live close to New York, consider visiting the MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and its major retrospective exhibition: "The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism"  created by the African American community over the years.

With admiration and respect,

Caroline Mustard, with the collaboration of two of our stellar African American students Lorie Daniel and Trina Love


The Seismic Change that Heralded a New Era in Modern Art

In 1906 Henri Matisse was on his way to the apartment of his patron Gertrude Stein when he saw this figurine in a shop.  He was so taken by it, he purchased and took it with him to a soiree. He showed it to everyone there including Pablo Picasso, who was equally taken with it.

This was in fact the beginning of what we now know as Modern Art.

Picasso immediately paid his first visit to the Trocadero, a museum of antiquities where he found more of what he now knew was art coming from Africa, brought to Europe by the imperialistic traders and colonist returning from different areas. They brought with them different examples of the cultures which existed there, art and creations that evidenced their beliefs and lives. Picasso was enthralled by what he found. It changed his life forever and introduced a new art form we now know as Modern Art or Modernism.

A smell of mold and neglect grabbed me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately. But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all those objects that people had created with a sacred and magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown and hostile forces that surrounded them, thereby trying to overcome their fears, giving them color and shape. And then I understood what painting really meant. It is not an aesthetic process, it is a form of magic that stands between us and the hostile universe, a means of taking power, imposing a form on our terrors as well as our wishes. The day I understood that, I found my way.”

- Pablo Picasso 

The result of this inspiration was Picasso's painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). It broke away from traditional representational forms and introduced a new language of abstraction and fragmentation.

Picasso realized his purpose as a painter, which was not to entertain with decorative images, but to mediate between perceived reality and the creativity of the human mind - to be freed, or "exorcised", from fear of the unknown by giving form to it.

He continued his creative journey with fellow artist Georges Braque, inspired by the African art they studied, exploring their use of geometric shapes and perspective as well as the spiritual force of the art. It was a different way of looking at the world and ignored the use of linear perspective adopted by artists half a century earlier to represent reality.

They called their revolutionary new style CUBISM and indeed it created a seismic change that welcomed in a new age of Modernism where artists dared to challenge tradition and look at everything from new viewpoints.

"Cubism was an attack on the perspective that had been known and used for 500 years. It was the first big, big change. It confused people: they said, 'Things don't look like that!"

Overall, the influence of African art on early 20th-century Europe challenged conventional artistic norms, sparked innovative approaches to representation, and contributed to the emergence of modernism as a transformative force in Western art history.

In the following two images you see an early 20th century African Statuette, and on the right you see the sculpture. Modern artists were drawn to African sculpture because of its sophisticated approach to the abstraction of the human figure.

The first two images are of an African sculpture and then one by Alberto Giacometti, who also visited the Trocadero with his sketchbook. He would sit and sketch the different works of art. They deeply influenced his work and he acknowledged this as the source of his inspiration.

Like so many other painters and sculptors of the time, Modigliani's paintings and sculpture draws directly from his study of African masks and Egyptian sculptures which he also studied at the Trocadero Museum after arriving in Paris in 1906 as a young Italian artist.

There are countless other examples of artists directly influenced by what they saw, and then their influences were passed on to artists in the future.

Perhaps as a way of justifying his own actions, Picasso wrote: “All artists copy.  Great artists steal.” We can thank him for at least being honest and attributing his sea change as an artist to the African cultures which producing such wonderful art that heralded what we now consider to be Modern Art.


The African American Renaissance

Although the renaissance in African American Art started in Harlem after the first World War, there are two artists who preceded it and inspired and encouraged those who followed to create a true renaissance in all of the arts;

Our next story begins with Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-19370) the first African American to gain the attention of the white dominated art world.

Educated in Philadelphia, Tanner received a formal art education although he was only one black student amongst a class of one hundred. He had massive talent as you can see from this painting entitled "The Witch Hunt" (circa 1982-88).

Tanner moved to Paris in 1891 with a plan to continue on to Rome. But he was so taken with the Parisian art world and his acceptance into it that he stayed and studied under different artists to further his craft. He joined the art community at Pont-Aven in Brittany in the mid 1890s following Paul Gauguin who had painted there earlier. He was exposed to and joined the group of Symbolist painterss who explored inner consciousness, dreams and mystical inspiration.

He never returned to the US having found himself in a welcoming artistic world who did not judge him by his race, color or culture. He termed it a "perfect race democracy." 

While an expatriate until his death in 1937, he continued to have close ties to the United States, and was invested in the struggle for African American equality. He also became a mentor to other African American artists who came to Paris to learn their craft.


The next African American artist to join Tanner in Paris was the sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968)

Also born and educated in Philadelphia, Fuller travelled to Paris in 1899 to continue her art education. She quickly received recognition from the Paris art art world.  One of her admirers was Auguste Rodin and the Paris crowd were drawn to the power of her sculpture which depicted horror, sorrow and pain. The sculpture to the left entitled Carrying the Dead was made in Paris is 1901.

Tanner became Fuller's mentor in Paris. She returned to the US in 1902 and settled in Massachusetts where she opened a studio in Farmington. Reportedly one of her admirers in the US was the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois who encouraged her to draw from African and African American themes in her work which she indeed did.

One of her most important works, entitled Ethiopia, shows a woman breaking out of a shrouds symbolizing the strength and resilience of African heritage.

While she did not live in New York, Fuller's dedication to framing the African American experience in her work was an inspiration to the artists who followed her in creating a true renaissance.


At the end of World War I, many African Americans were fighting for their country yet still segregated from their fellow soldiers. As they were discharged, these soldiers came back to face the same inhumane treatment. The Negro Silent Protest Parade, commonly known as the Silent Parade, was a silent march of about 10,000 African Americans along Fifth Avenue starting at 57th Street in New York City on July 28, 1917. They protested the racial riots in East St. Louis where violent white mobs destroyed homes and stores of black residents with little to no police intervention.

It was in this crucible that the Harlem Renaissance was born, a flouring of African American art, literature, music, poetry and culture.

One of it's earliest visual artist was Aaron Douglas (1899 - 1978).  Douglas was born in Kansas and as a young man moved to Detroit where he attended free art classes in the museum.  From there he moved to  Nebraska and after World War I, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska and  graduated with a degree in art in 1922.   

In 1925 he planned to pass through Harlem in his way to Paris but reportedly his friends persuaded him to stay. There, he drew and painted dancers and musicians, earning him the title of the Jazz Artist. 

He became a student of a German immigrant portraitist and developed his own unique style. His work was greatly admired and he began illustrating books for African American authors including a seminal sociological study by Alain Leroy Locke entitled The New Negro, seen above.

After making a living from illustration he completed his first mural painting at Fisk University in 1930. In 1931 he travelled to Paris to continue his education. Back in New York in 1933, Douglas completed his most legendary works—a series of murals entitled "Aspects of Negro Life" that featured four panels, each depicting a different part of the African American experience. Each mural covers a different aspect of the African American experience and throughout Douglas includes musicians to represent freedom.

Third panel: Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery Through Reconstruction. After the Civil War in the US, the period of post-war Reconstruction (post-1865) was a time of great change – while on the left are the threatening and repressive figures of the Klu Klux Klan in the background, and a representation of sharecropping and the cotton harvest at the front. On the right side is rejoicing, with arms upraised, accompanied by a trumpeter and a dancer, representing the new freedoms. On the hill behind are the symbols of the north – apartment houses and the US capital.


While all the prior artists mentioned received their art education in their teens and twenties, Palmer Hayden (1890 - 1973) was in his 30s when he finally got to study what he loved.

Born in Widewater VA, he grew up with a a talent and passion for drawing.  He moved to DC where, after several odd jobs he worked as an animal carer at The Ringling Circus where he continued to draw and ended up being paid to create circus posters. He joined the Army in 1908 (aged 18) and served until the end of WWI, learning the trade of cartography.  

After his Army discharge he moved to New York City where he enrolled in summer school art classes.  He got a job as a janitor to support himself and it was there he met an art teacher who lived in the apartment he cleaned. Recognizing his talent, the teacher invited him to join his class at Cooper Union. He began his training and entered the world he always wanted to be part of. His work was recognized and he won awards and the notice of the Harmon Foundation, established by a white real estate developer who collected African American art and funded many of African American artists.

Using prize money and a grant from the foundation, Palmer travelled to Paris in 1930 and spent four years traveling around France exposed to the influence of African art on artists of the time.  

Upon his return to New York he was funded as an easel painter through the WPA Federal Art Project which lasted through 1940. Palmer was noted for documenting life in the streets of Harlem and became an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.


The fourth artist included here is Archibald John Motley, Jr. (October 7, 1891 – January 16, 1981) Born in Chicago he is considered an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance although he never lived in New York.

In 1918, the same year he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Motley published “The Negro in Art,” an essay on the difficulties Black artists faced in The Chicago Defender. His artistic output was grounded in the idea that art could act as a force to help end racial prejudice.

A true Chicagoan at heart, Motley remarked, “Artists feel that they’re more readily recognized in Europe than they are here in America. Well, me, I’m just a funny kind I’m telling you. I decided and I made up my mind, I said, I’m going to stay here, I’m not going anywhere, I’m not going to Europe. They’re not going to chase me out of my own country. I’m an American. I’m proud of being an American. I don’t give a damn what color my skin is, I’m going to stay right here and I’m going to fight it out, and I’m going to make my name right here. I’m staying right here in wonderful America. And I love Chicago.”

Motley dedicated his career to depicting the lively world of the city’s “Black Belt,” a vibrant area in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville known for music and nightlife. From the 1920s through the 1940s, when African Americans were rarely depicted in art without negative connotations, Motley deliberately focused on them as the subjects of elegant portraits and dynamic genre paintings, swiftly garnering acclaim in the largely white art world.

The First One Hundred Years: He Amongst You Who is Without Sin Shall Cast the First Stone: Forgive Them Father For They Know Not What They Do, 1963–72. Oil on canvas, 48 7/8 × 40 3/4 in. (124 × 103.5 cm). Collection of Mara Motley and Valerie Gerrard Browne. Image courtesy the Chicago History Museum,

© Valerie Gerrard Browne (artist’s daughter-in-law).


We cannot pay homage to the many amazing African American artists without breaking the Internet as they number in the thousands and more from the earliest to today. But we encourage you all to please make your own searches for the work of those mentioned above and other artists like them.

Thank you for joining us in celebrating this month of February, Black History Month 2024

113 views7 comments


I learned so much from this blog post!! Amazing research! The impact of these artists is tremendous. Thank you for sharing this art history on a very important topic during the very important Black History Month!


Powerful and thought provoking in so many ways. Thanks for sharing this.


WOWSERS! This is helpful. The transforming impact of African culture… globally… has positively GROWN our human understanding of WHO we are. Society and individuals seem more united in these great artistic achievements. This is an “eye-opener!” Yes. Warmest regards from Connie.


Many thanks, Caroline, for the presentation on African Influence in Art. It is beautiful, inspiring, and thoughtful. We have a lot to be thankful for and so many artists benefited from having known and loved African art it is wonderful to see it put together as you did. Pure gratitude to those who came before us and continue to light the way.



Hi Caroline - saved this to read at an all day soccer tournament! Wow you guys have put in an amazing amount of research and work into this , really interesting and bet it was an inspiring session- hope everyone is well and enjoying their art !!! Best Sonia

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