In both his style and his subjects, Aaron Douglas revolutionized African-American art. A leader within the Harlem Renaissance, Douglas created a broad range of work that helped to shape this movement and bring it to national prominence. Through his collaborations, illustrations, and public murals, he established a method of combining elements of modern art and African culture to celebrate the African-American experience and call attention to racism and segregation.
Douglas depicted African subjects in an innovative and bold graphic style that was inspired by modern art, particularly Cubism. His approach elevated both everyday experiences and non-Western history to be part of an international avant-garde. He also integrated the rhythms of jazz into his compositions, adding an additional element of African-American culture to his imagery.
Flattening his figures to two-dimensional silhouettes and generalizing their forms to be generic men and women, Douglas created imagery that celebrated African and African-American themes in terms that were universal and integrative. He employed this style across a range of different media, including painting, illustration, murals, and prints.
Douglas often worked with a narrow range of colors, instead using compositional elements and shapes like concentric circles and radiating beams, to create dramatic focal points and dynamic movement. These abstract elements enhanced the narratives of his paintings to make them more emotionally impactful.
Through his work with the Harlem Artists Guild and as the chair of the art department at Fisk University (a historically black college), Douglas worked to increase educational access and career opportunities for young African-American artists. He was an important mentor for second-generation Harlem Renaissance artists and an inspiration to contemporary artists who deal with race and identity in their work.