The Renaissance and the Harlem
Renaissance: A Comparison and Contrast
The Renaissance Period of the 14th-16th century was a time of change and growth in the world of art. All art forms experienced progress not only in terms of the human aspect of imagination, creativity and philosophy, but also in terms of progress in available technologies and available materials and tools. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s was similarly a time of change in the human condition as well as technique and subject matter. The medium of visual art, particularly painting, of both periods provides a fascinating study of comparison sand contrasts.
The Renaissance was a time of prolific production of paintings, many that are now considered masterpieces. At the beginning of the 14th century a change occurred regarding the philosophy behind art. The emergence of the Renaissance Humanist movement and its focus on the human condition separate from the church gave way to a vast array of previously unused, and in some cases, taboo subject matter. There was also a revival of interest in the Greek and Roman culture, their myths and legends and the beauty of their structures and cities (Renaissance Art, 2013). During the Harlem Renaissance there was a growing movement of independence in the African American art community. Prior to this time, there were African American artists, however there subject matter had been primarily depictions of Caucasian people, their lifestyle and culture. During the Harlem Renaissance, at the time called the New Negro Movement, there was a growing emphasis on African traditions and culture, as well as depiction of contemporary African American lifestyle and culture. The most famous painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) said “Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let's do the impossible. Let's create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic." (The Making of African American Identity, 2007) This exemplifies the feeling of paintings from the Harlem Renaissance. They convey movement and feeling, bringing the observer into the action of the subject. This differs from the style of painting in the Renaissance. in that they provide a feeling of observation, a “snapshot” of a particular event or subject. The observer is intrigued by the beauty, the subject, the context and the message, but not inspired to participate as they are when viewing a painting from the Harlem Renaissance.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages, paintings were primarily commissioned by the Church and the subject matter was limited to saints and biblical depictions in strict adherence to church doctrine. The use of Christian imagery and biblical subject matter continued in the Renaissance, however there was a much broader interpretation of the subjects, allowing the artist some license for his personality and beliefs to shine through and to focus on the human condition. (Renaissance Art, 2013) The Renaissance works The Glorification of Mary (Botticelli, 1481) and San Zaccaria Altarpiece (Bellini, 1505) both portray biblical themes, but are not literal interpretations and contain contemporary people and/or images combined with the classic biblical figures. There are paintings from the Harlem Renaissance that portray spiritual and biblical subjects as well. These images are similar to the biblical/spiritual paintings from the Renaissance in that they also are subject to interpretation and are not a literal illustration. For example, Jesus and Three Marys...
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