Kansas-born Aaron Douglas (1899 – 1979) was the leading visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the great flowering of the arts in the 1920s and 1930s in New York’s predominantly African American neighborhood. Rendered in Douglas’s flat silhouetted style and with lavender and yellow-gold hues, this work, Let My People Go (1935-39), depicts the Old Testament story about God’s order to Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt.
Ministers, abolitionists , and politicians from the nineteenth-century through the Civil Rights era have related this story to the oppression of African Americans. Light Symbolizing God’s command radiates down and envelops the kneeling figure of Moses. Douglas derived this composition from a design he created in 1927 for God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, a collaboration with author and activist James Weldon Johnson.
Photographed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.
In the 1920s, Charles Demuth (1883 – 1935) painted a remarkable series of “Poster Portraits” depicting friends and fellow artists. Rather than capturing a physical likeness, these works conveyed the subject’s character through arrangements of commonplace objects rendered in the crisp style of advertisements. While Demuth did not include a self-portrait in the series, My Egypt (1927), produced during the same period, suggests a parallel effort to distill his personal and artistic concerns in symbolic terms. This depiction of a newly built grain elevator in the artist’s native Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the apex of his quest to develop a dynamic geometric style that would herald America’s industrial prowess. By titling the painting My Egypt, Demuth equates the grain elevator with the ancient pyramids, but he also invites a more poignant, intimate reading. When he made this work, Demuth was confined by debilitating illness to his home in Lancaster. Calling the image his Egypt links his hometown to the Biblical narrative of Egypt as a site of involuntary bondage.
Photographed in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.