African American Art

Media - 2011.16 - SAAM-2011.16_1 - 75736

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja2010, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2011.16, © 2010, Mickalene Thomas

SAAM is home to one of the most significant collections of works by African American artists in the world.

These artworks span three centuries of creative expression in various media, including painting, sculpture, textiles, and photography, and represent numerous artistic styles, from realism to neoclassicism, abstract expressionism, modernism, and folk art. From a rare group of photographs by early African American studios to an important group of works by self-taught artist Bill Traylor to William H. Johnson’s vibrant portrayals of faith and family, to Mickalene Thomas’s contemporary exploration of black female identity, the museum’s holdings reflect its long-standing commitment to Black artists and the acquisition, preservation, and display of their work.


The artists included in SAAM’s collection powerfully evoke themes both universal and specific to the African American experience. Many reflect the tremendous social and political change that occurred from the early Republic to the Civil War, through the rise of industry, the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the post-war years, the Civil Rights movement to present day questions of personal identity and racism.

Selected Works

Media - 2019.29.1 - SAAM-2019.29.1_1 - 138052
Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series…
Date2017, printed 2018
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2017.4A-Y - SAAM-2017.4A-Y_1 - 129032
Requiem for Charleston
tambourines, pyrographic calligraphy on lambskin, acrylic discs and braided trim
Not on view
Media - 2011.16 - SAAM-2011.16_1 - 75736
Portrait of Mnonja
rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel
On view
Media - 2020.3 - SAAM-2020.3_1 - 138426
Love is the Message, The Message is Death
single-channel high-definition digital video, color, sound; 07:25 minutes
On view
Media - 2019.30.3 - SAAM-2019.30.3_1 - 138060
A Young Woman Between Carrolburg Place and Half Street,…
Date1989, printed 2018
inkjet photograph
Not on view
Media - 1994.17 - SAAM-1994.17_1 - 73240
The Death of Cleopatra
Datecarved 1876
On view
Media - 2015.34 - SAAM-2015.34_1 - 116878
Amendment #8
mixed media
On view
Media - 2014.15 - SAAM-2014.15_1 - 96013
The Struggle
acrylic on wood
On view
Media - 2012.34A-B - SAAM-2012.34A-B_1 - 81721
mixed media
On view
Media - 2008.19.1.1 - SAAM-2008.19.1.1_1 - 70182
Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats, from the…
offset lithograph and screenprint on paper
Not on view
Media - 1988.57 - SAAM-1988.57_2 - 135943
Dateca. 1929
painted plaster
On view
Media - 1983.95.177 - SAAM-1983.95.177_2 - 135152
Vesuvius and Pompeii
oil on canvas
On view
Media - 1967.59.1003 - SAAM-1967.59.1003_1-000001 - 81387
Going to Church
Dateca. 1940-1941
oil on burlap
On view
Media - 1967.59.669 - SAAM-1967.59.669_3 - 134199
Dateca. 1939-1940
oil on paperboard
On view
Media - 1989.52 - SAAM-1989.52_1 - 10764
Singing Head
black Mexican marble
On view
Media - 1983.95.185 - SAAM-1983.95.185_1 - 7503
Abraham’s Oak
oil on canvas
On view
Media - 1994.32 - SAAM-1994.32_1 - 52003
Evening Rendezvous
oil on linen
Not on view
Media - 1973.115 - SAAM-1973.115_1 - 4432
April 4
acrylic on canvas
Not on view
Media - 2018.14 - SAAM-2018.14_1 - 136323
shoe tips, car tire, shoe tongues, rope
Not on view
Media - 2014.5 - SAAM-2014.5_1 - 96209
Melrose Quilt
Dateca. 1960
Not on view
Media - 1994.57.3 - SAAM-1994.57.3_1 - 52009
Evening Attire
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1994.23.4 - SAAM-1994.23.4_2 - 135653
The Guardian
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 1983.82 - SAAM-1983.82_1 - 76345
polyester resin/cast
Not on view
Media - 2001.6 - SAAM-2001.6_4 - 127519
Blackberry Woman
Datemodeled by 1930, cast 1932
Not on view
Media - 1994.45.1A-MMM - SAAM-1994.45.1A-MMM_1 - 11888
The Colonel’s Cabinet
mixed media: carpet, chair, painting, and cabinet with found and handmade objects
Not on view
Media - 2006.24.5 - SAAM-2006.24.5_1 - 67164
Moon Masque
oil and collage on canvas
Not on view
Media - 2009.27 - SAAM-2009.27_1 - 71806
Dateca. 1970
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1994.59 - SAAM-1994.59_2 - 129857
Still Life with Peonies
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 2011.25.1 - SAAM-2011.25.1_1 - 75979
Red Stripe with Green Background
oil on linen
Not on view
Media - 1970.324 - SAAM-1970.324_1 - 52851
Light Blue Nursery
acrylic on canvas
On view
Media - 2019.18 - SAAM-2019.18_1 - 137742
A Foolish Trick
oil-based enamel and pencil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 2016.14.5 - SAAM-2016.14.5_2 - 129305
Untitled (Yellow and Blue House with Figures and Dog)
colored pencil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1991.40 - SAAM-1991.40_1 - 67569
Stagger Lee
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1991.80.3 - SAAM-1991.80.3_1 - 73199
Dancing at Jazz Alley. Chicago, Illinois, June 1974, from…
Date1974, printed 1982
gelatin silver print
Not on view
Media - 2001.61 - SAAM-2001.61_5 - 118477
Low Basket with Handle
sweetgrass, pine needles, and palmetto
Not on view
Media - 1999.73 - SAAM-1999.73_1 - 52018
Echo I
mixed media on wood
Not on view
Media - 1996.71 - SAAM-1996.71_1 - 52013
Empress of the Blues
acrylic and pencil on paper and printed paper on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 2022.25 - SAAM-2022.25_1 - 146159
Don’t Tread on Me, God Damn, Let’s Go! — The Harlem…
cottons, silk, wool, and velvet
On view
Media - 2022.13 - SAAM-2022.13_1 - 146150
woven linen with madder dye and tea stain
Not on view

Related Artists

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Bill Traylor
born near Pleasant Hill, AL ca. 1853-died Montgomery, AL 1949

Bill Traylor was born around April 1, 1853, on the Alabama plantation of John Getson Traylor in Dallas County, near the towns of Pleasant Hill and Benton. Traylor and his siblings were born enslaved, as their parents had been.

Media - portrait_image_113210.jpg - 90143
William H. Johnson
born Florence, SC 1901-died Central Islip, NY 1970

By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. He produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents.

Mickalene Thomas
born Camden, NJ 1971
Sargent Johnson
born Boston, MA 1887-died San Francisco, CA 1967

"It is the pure American Negro I am concerned with, aiming to show the natural beauty and dignity in that characteristic lip and that characteristic hair, bearing and manner; and I wish to show that beauty not so much to the white man as to the Negro h

James Hampton
born Elloree, SC 1909-died Washington, DC 1964

Little is known about James Hampton, despite the grandeur of his self-chosen title, "Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity." He was born in 1909 in Elloree, South Carolina, a small community of predominantly African-American sharecropper

Romare Bearden
born Charlotte, NC 1911-died New York City 1988

Born in North Carolina; studied in the U.S. and in Paris; lived mostly in New York City.

Media - 1977.121 - SAAM-1977.121_1 - 52854
Alma Thomas
born Columbus, GA 1891-Washington, DC 1978

During the 1960s Alma Thomas emerged as an exuberant colorist, abstracting shapes and patterns from the trees and flowers around her.

Media - portrait_image_113759.jpg - 89900
Edward Mitchell Bannister
born St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Canada 1828-died Providence, RI 1901

Bannister created a sensation when one of his paintings won first prize at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. He was also a respected and knowledgeable art critic.

Robert S. Duncanson
born Seneca County, NY 1821/22-died Detroit, MI 1872
Media - tanner_henry_ossawa.jpg - 90551
Henry Ossawa Tanner
born Pittsburgh, PA 1859-died Paris, France 1937

Working in France after 1891, Henry Ossawa Tanner achieved an international reputation largely through his religious paintings.

Media - portrait_image_114982.jpg - 142353
Edmonia Lewis
born Greenbush (now Rensselaer), NY 1844-died London, England 1907
Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of African American and Native American (Mississauga) descent to achieve international recognition. Her father was Black, and her mother was Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian.
Media - 1986.65.110 - SAAM-1986.65.110_1 - 9720
Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr.
born Atlantic City, NJ 1929-died New York City 1998
William Edmondson
born Nashville, TN 1874-died Nashville, TN 1951

William Edmondson, son of Tennessee slaves, did not consider himself an artist when he began carving around 1932, after retiring from his job as a laborer.

Media - 1986.65.186 - SAAM-1986.65.186_1 - 9799
Sister Gertrude Morgan
born Lafayette, AL 1900-died New Orleans, LA 1980

Gertrude Morgan was raised as an active member of the Southern Baptist church. "My heavenly father called me in 1934 . . . . Go ye into yonder's world and sing with a loud voice you. . .

Media - Pierce_Elijah.jpg - 144036
Elijah Pierce
born Baldwyn, MS 1892-died Columbus, OH 1984

Elijah Pierce described himself as a "peculiar" child, because he did not want to work on his father's farm like his brothers.

Media - sudduth_jimmy_lee.jpg - 90549
Jimmy Lee Sudduth
born Caines Ridge, AL 1910-died Fayette, AL 2007

Jimmy Lee Sudduth's fertile imagination has led him to paint self-portraits, dogs, television personalities, and the architecture and landscape near his home in Fayette, Alabama, as well as views of New York and other cities.

Inez Nathaniel-Walker
born Sumter, SC 1911-died Willard, NY 1990

Inez Nathaniel went north to Philadelphia during the Great Migration of the 1930s to escape the harsh realities of farm work in the rural South.

Benny Andrews
born Madison, GA 1930-died New York City 2006
Mark Bradford
born Los Angeles, CA 1961
Nick Cave
born Fulton, MO 1959
Thornton Dial, Sr.
born Emelle, AL 1928-died McCalla, AL 2016

Thornton Dial was born into a sharecropping family in rural Alabama, on the eve of the Great Depression. He experienced the trauma and tumult of both Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement. Profoundly influenced by Dr.

Media - portrait_image_113542.jpg - 90299
Sam Gilliam
born Tupelo, MS 1933-died Washington, DC 2022

Gilliam is an innovative color field painter who has advanced the inventions associated with the Washington Color School.

Arthur Jafa- portrait
Arthur Jafa
born Tupelo, MS 1960

Arthur Jafa (b. 1960, Tupelo, Mississippi) is an artist, filmmaker and cinematographer.

Loïs Mailou Jones
born Boston, MA 1905-died Washington, DC 1998

Now in her eighth decade as an artist, Lois Mailou Jones has treated an extraordinary range of subjects—from French, Haitian, and New England landscapes to the sources and issues of African-American culture.

Media - J0001840_1b.jpg - 89303
Jacob Lawrence
born Atlantic City, NJ 1917-died Seattle, WA 2000

Painter. A social realist, Lawrence documented the African American experience in several series devoted to Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, life in Harlem, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Kerry James Marshall
born Birmingham, AL 1955
Martin Puryear
born Washington, DC 1941

One of the most important American sculptors working today, Martin Puryear (born 1941) is known for refined, handmade constructions, primarily in wood. Puryear's abstract forms, while evocative and familiar, elude specific or singular interpretations.

Faith Ringgold
born New York City 1930
The artist Cauleen Smith sits in a chair in a pink top and green pants
Cauleen Smith
born Riverside, CA 1967
Kara Walker
born Stockton, CA 1969
Dawoud Bey
born New York City 1953
Roy DeCarava
born New York City 1919-died New York City 2009
Roland L. Freeman
born Baltimore, MD 1936
Gordon Parks
born Fort Scott, KS 1912-died New York City 2006

The people of Fort Scott, Kansas, have stayed with Gordon Parks all his life. He grew up in this prairie town, the youngest child in a family of fifteen, amid poverty and racism.

James VanDerZee
born Lenox, MA 1886-died Washington, DC 1983

VanDerZee began photographing as a teenager after having won an eight-dollar camera as a premium for selling pink and yellow silk sachets. Beginning in 1916 he worked out of a commercial Harlem studio he opened on 135th street.