Most of these artists found inspiration in the streets and homes of Harlem. Helen Levitt, who spent her career photographing lively activity in different parts of the city, captured the upper-Manhattan neighborhood, a center of African American culture. In 1941, resident Jacob Lawrence made a series of paintings about the Great Migration—the multi-decade mass exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North that dramatically increased Harlem’s population. The series was a key example of the way that artists reimagined history painting in the modern era. William H. Johnson, another Southern migrant to Harlem who had returned to the neighborhood after working in Europe, created scenes of everyday African American life in Harlem and in the South with flat compositions and vibrant colors. Alice Neel made portraits of the people of nearby Spanish Harlem, a community that had rarely been represented in such a way. The fusion of art and politics defines these artists’ contributions to the traditions of figurative art in the twentieth century.
Organized by Cara Manes, Associate Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, with Ana Torok, Curatorial Assistant, and Danielle Johnson, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints.