Taft Museum of Art

photo by Tony Walsh


Cincinnati, Ohio

(513) 241-0343


The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945


The rich visual and sculptural legacy of African American art comes to the Taft Museum of Art with the special exhibition, "The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945," June 16 through October 22, 2000. (left: Joseph Delaney (904-1991), Street Festival, 1940. oil on canvas, The Thomson Collection)

Organized by guest curator R. Kumasi Hampton, professor and faculty adviser in the college of undergraduate studies at the Union Institute, Cincinnati, the exhibition places the Taft Museum of Art's murals by Robert Scott Duncanson (1821-1872) in the broader context of African American artistic achievements. Forty-nine paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors, prints and photographs have been borrowed from 19 public, private and corporate regional collections for this exhibition.

"The Great Migration: The Evolution of African American Art, 1790-1945" traces the development of African American art from late 18th-century portraits and l9th-century landscapes to 20th-century paintings and prints that illustrate issues related to cultural heritage and racial equality.

The earliest works in the exhibition are two portraits by Joshua Johnson (about 1765-1830), a free black artist who was active in Baltimore, a city that had over 25,000 free blacks (as compared to 3,000 slaves) in the early 1800s. The earliest documented African American professional painter, little is known about Johnston's life except that he was born a slave and gained his freedom by 1796. (left: Hale Woodruff (1900-1980), Study for "The Art of the Negro" Interchange [Mural #2 at Trevor Arnett Library, Clark Atlanta University], about 1945, oil on canvas, Private collection)

Post-Civil War artists, promoted by white and black abolitionists, visibly represented an alternative image of African Americans with the purpose of exposing the folly of racial prejudice by demonstrating the humanity of blacks. One such artist represented in this exhibition is Patrick H. Reason (1816-1898), a printmaker who produced engravings and etchings for white and black anti-slavery societies.

Artists at this time earned money and gained critical fame by exhibiting their works publicly. Before the rise of municipal museums in the 1870s and1880s, African Americans looked mainly to public exhibition spaces. One such place was the Cincinnati studio-gallery owned and operated by James Presley Ball, Jr. (1825-1904), a photographer active from the mid-1840s through the 1860s. Ball's Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West opened in 1847, becoming the largest gallery in the region. In addition to the photographs displayed there, including Ball's own works, paintings by Duncanson were also exhibited there. Duncanson had been commissioned by Nicholas Longworth, an abolitionist and former owner of the Baum-Longworth-Taft House (now the Taft Museum of Art), to paint a suite of eight landscape murals in the formal entranceway of his home.

The third section of the exhibition examines the American Renaissance that had begun in 1876 after the Reconstruction period and continued well into the 20th century. It was a period of rapid population growth and great industrial wealth, with cities expanding quickly. Of continuing concern for African Americans was the need to obtain full rights of citizenship regardless of race. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans migrated from the rural, mostly agricultural South to the urban industrialized North from 1913 to 1946. Historians call this movement the Great Migration. This section will include works from early 20th century artists Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), John Wesley Hardrick (1891-1964) and others. (left: Joshua Johnston (about 1765-1830), Mary Buchanan Smith (1788-1868), about 1797-98, oil on canvas, Private collection)

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated color catalogue that will be available in the Taft Museum of Art Shop.

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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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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 2/28/11

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