Art by African Americans

Artwork Image
Media - 2011.16 - SAAM-2011.16_1 - 75736

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja2010, rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on wood panel, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

Themes

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.

Learn More From Black Artists

The Collection

Beginning in the mid-1960s the museum acquired significant works by African American artists including Sargent Johnson’s Mask and James Hampton’s visionary installation, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, as well as works by Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, and Alma Thomas. In 1980, the museum acquired works by nineteenth century artists Joshua Johnson, the earliest documented professional African American painter; Edward Mitchell BannisterRobert S. Duncanson, and Henry Ossawa Tanner; and neoclassical sculptures by Edmonia Lewis, the first professional African American sculptor.

Six years later, the museum acquired more than 400 works by folk and self-taught artists from the holdings of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. A significant number of artworks in the collection are by African Americans including William Edmondson, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Elijah Pierce, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Bill Traylor, and Inez Nathaniel-Walker.

In 2021, the museum purchased the L. J. West Collection, an extraordinary set of objects related to early American photography that included daguerreotypes by the three early African American studio photographers James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington.

Modern and contemporary artists featured in SAAM's collection include Benny AndrewsMark Bradford, Nick CaveThornton Dial, Sr., Sam Gilliam, Arthur JafaLoïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Kerry James Marshall, Martin Puryear, Faith Ringgold, Cauleen SmithAlma Thomas, and Kara Walker, among others.

Important holdings in photography include works by Dawoud BeyRoy DeCarava, Roland Freeman, Marilyn Nance, Gordon Parks, and James Van Der Zee. SAAM has the largest collection in the world of works by early African American daguerreotypists James P. Ball, Glenalvin Goodridge, and Augustus Washington.