Another exciting project, centering around two famous Renaissance artists, invites students to compare and reproduce two of their paintings: The Ascent of Ethiopia by Lois Mailou Jones and Building More Stately Mansions by Aaron Douglas, who often is referred to as “the father of African American Art.” Both of these artists are featured in the video, Against the Odds, listed in the bibliography. Some students may enjoy reproducing one of these paintings after comparing them, or they may choose to create their own painting on the same topic, or they may wish to reproduce a painting by another artist of the Renaissance. (There is a wealth of Renaissance art on the internet and in the books listed in the bibliography. Palmer Hayden, William Henry Johnson, Augusta Savage, Marvin and Morgan Smith and James VanDerZee are a few artists, sculptors and photographers that they might start with.) Don’t overlook photographs of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s that students could reproduce, using present-day subjects.
The two paintings I have chosen for comparison represent the progression of cultures and civilization from Egypt, and therefore Africa, to the present. The symbols that the two artists have chosen to represent this progression are similar, yet the paintings are very different. While their styles and colors are very different, they express a similar phenomenon. Students will be asked to list everything they see from shapes and figures to objects, including colors in one painting and then the other. The similarities and differences will become evident. I have chosen these two paintings because, similar to the poem by Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” they both ground the African American in the dawn of civilization, a historical topic that was on the minds of Renaissance artists. A reproduction and discussion of Aaron Douglas’s painting may be found in To Conserve a Legacy, a brilliant book by Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, Jock Reynolds, and Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Duke University, Dr. Richard J. Powell, that documents the restoration and conservation of American art from historically black colleges and universities. A reproduction of Lois Mailou Jones’s painting may be found among the wealth of paintings and photographs and text in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance by Dr. Richard J. Powell. I plan to make slides of these two paintings so that the students can see each painting larger than life, while they collaborate on the task of identifying shapes, figures, objects and colors.