Times Art Writer

Is there anyone left who doubts that the work of black artists is a significant part of America’s cultural heritage? And, while we’re on that sore subject, is there anyone who actually believes that black artists’ contributions have been assimilated into art history?

We finally understand that Art of the Ages is not an exclusively white male enterprise, but we have done little to adjust the official record.

If we had there would be no need for “Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950,” at the California Afro-American Museum (through June 2). It’s an 84-piece traveling survey organized to bring 42 artists to public attention and to prove, once again, that their efforts run parallel to those of enshrined figures.

One can argue that it’s high time for another major overview of black art; the last, the much larger “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” was staged 10 years ago. But it’s higher time to see some of the artists in depth or in concise historical and thematic groups. The familiar message would have a stronger impact if we could really get to know some individuals. For now, they fade into one more panorama.


It begins with 19th-Century work which offers no clues that this is a black show. Brushing right along with their white counterparts, the artists paint romantic landscapes and portraits of white people. That shouldn’t be surprising. If blacks were to be paid for portraits they needed affluent clients, and if they were to paint landscapes, their role models were likely to be white artists working in the European tradition.

It’s ironic to see David Bowser painting symbols of the country that had treated his people as something less than human beings, in his 1847 canvas “The Bald Eagle and the Shield of the United States,” but he made his living by painting emblems and banners for Philadelphia fire fighters.

Given their economic plight and the difficulty of getting training and attracting patronage, the 19th-Century black artists’ level of achievement is astonishing. One of the most accomplished, Robert S. Duncanson, was supported by abolitionists in Cincinnati and he traveled twice to Europe where he saw the works of Claude Lorraine, whom he emulated in Italianate landscapes.

Edward M. Bannister, another prominent black 19th-Century artist, is remembered as a member of America’s Barbizon School of landscape painters. Working in and around Boston, he received considerable recognition for his deft glorifications of nature--four of which are exhibited.


Social content began to creep into black artists’ work toward the end of the 19th Century, notably in Mary Edmonia Lewis’ marble sculpture “Forever Free,” depicting slaves’ reaction to emancipation. Henry O. Tanner’s work brought Expressionistic pathos to black art and recognition to the sensitive painter, though he had to go to Paris to establish himself. His luminous painting of a couple praying at their meager table, in “The Thankful Poor” (1894), is one of the most touching and restrained images in the exhibition.

The Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s gave black artists a shot of creative adrenalin, along with the courage to consult African sources and depict life in their neighborhoods. Archibald Motley, who had created such contemplative scenes as an old black woman mending socks, burst forth with a high-spirited, cartoonish painting of black “Jazz Singers” and a sizzling city scene called “Black Belt.”

In such posteresque paintings as “Noah’s Ark,” illustrator and muralist Aaron Douglas combined a modernist aesthetic with African silhouettes in a dramatic interpretation of a biblical story.

As dedication to black subject matter grew, so did consciousness of Modernism. Charles Sebree shamelessly borrowed from Picasso’s Blue Period in a 1938 painting called “The Blue Jacket,” while other artists adapted Cubist concepts. But for every derivative artist, there’s someone who developed a distinctive vision: Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White and Jacob Lawrence, for example.


The general mood of the show vacillates between depression and anger. Catlett’s “Tired” and “Pensive” sculptures give heroic scale to small figures, but they are permeated with physical exhaustion and introspective longings. White’s painting graphically portrays the despair of a pair of “Lovers,” while Lawrence spares no force in a brutal “Street Scene.”

The exhibition (organized by David C. Driskell for the Bellevue Art Museum and the Art Museum Assn. of America) is partly intended as a celebration. There’s talent and accomplishment to be commended, but I’ll save my cheers for the day when black artists’ work is woven into the fabric of American art history and exhibitions. In the meantime, it’s time to start looking at the artists as individuals.