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African American Paintings

The estimated 305,326 enslaved people sent from Africa to the British colonies of America between 1626 and 1866 brought with them their distinct cultural traditions; they created craft and art objects including drums, quilts, and ceramic mugs. Joshua Johnston of Maryland was the first African American artist to work in a Western tradition. He made painted portraits of slaveholders between 1790 and 1825.

African Americans continued the portrait painting tradition through the 1800s, and were especially active in Louisiana. The leading artists went to Paris where they trained with academicians and enjoyed life outside the American master-slave paradigm.

In the 1920s, thousands of artists depicted lynchings, self-portraits, migration, and police brutality; and explored the full gamut of African American cultural identity. This became known as the Harlem Renaissance, and it was a vast literary and artistic movement that ended following the stock market crash of 1929.

African American art danced between realism and abstraction in the 1950s, with the realist paintings influenced by the artistic movements of the early 20th century. In the 1960s, Black Expressionism, with its bright colors and figurative style, spoke directly to a black audience with frank depictions of lynching. In 1982, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. assembled 400 works of art in "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980," the first-ever museum primer on African American art.

Quick Facts

  • The African American experience is a key part of the current international art dialogue. Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley are the two best-known
  • Kara Walker's "KKK: ‘The Prescript of the Order of the invisible Empire – Its Peculiar Objects' […] A Negress, Deep in the Woods Beyond, Overhears," 2001, sold for $293,000 at Sotheby’s New York on September 25, 2013
  • Kehinde Wiley's "Defend and Develop the Island Together," 2006, sold for $125,000 at Sotheby’s New York on March 5, 2015

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