African American Art in the 20th Century

Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784

Frederick Brown, John Henry, 1979, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is home to one of the most significant collections of African American art in the world. In 2019, SAAM organized the exhibition African American Art in the 20th Century that is traveling to several cities across the United States.


This exhibition presents nearly 50 paintings and sculptures by 32 African American artists from SAAM’s collection. These artists came to prominence during the period bracketed by the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement. The means of these artists varied—from modern abstraction to stained color to the postmodern assemblage of found objects—and their subjects are diverse. Benny Andrews, Ellis Wilson and William H. Johnson speak to the dignity and resilience of people who work the land. Jacob Lawrence and Thornton Dial, Sr. acknowledge the struggle for economic and civil rights. Sargent Johnson, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Melvin Edwards address the heritage of Africa, and images by Romare Bearden celebrate jazz musicians. Sam Gilliam, Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas conducted innovative experiments with color and form.

The featured artworks were created at significant social and political moments in America. Words of Howard University philosophy professor Alain Locke, novelist James Baldwin, Civil Rights leader Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and their contemporaries provided insight and inspiration. In response, these artists created an image of America that recognizes individuals and community and acknowledges the role of art in celebrating the multivalent nature of American society.

Visiting Information

January 1, 2019 — December 292019
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission

Tour Schedule

Dubuque Museum of Art
Dubuque, IA
January 19, 2019 April 21, 2019
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
Winter Park, FL
September 20, 2019 December 29, 2019
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art
Greensburg, PA
February 15, 2020 January 17, 2021
Wichita Art Museum
Wichita, KS
February 6, 2021 May 23, 2021
Hudson River Museum
Yonkers, NY
October 15, 2021 January 16, 2022


African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, The Civil Rights Movement, and Beyond
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond offers a rich vision of twentieth-century visual culture. An essay by Richard Powell sets the stage: his analyses of works by Sargent Johnson, Renée Stout, Eldzier Cortor, and Alma Thomas give the reader a rubric for considering other works that range from the Harlem Renaissance to the decades beyond the civil rights era, a period that saw tremendous social and political change. The forty-three artists included here worked in every style current during those decades, from documentary realism to abstraction, from expressionism to postmodern assemblage. They consistently touch universal themes, but they also evoke specific aspects of the African American experience—the African Diaspora, jazz, and the persistent power of religion.


African American Art in the 20th Century is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The C.F. Foundation in Atlanta supports the museum’s traveling exhibition program, Treasures to Go. The William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund provided financial support.

Online Gallery

Media - 1966.27.4 - SAAM-1966.27.4_1 - 77487
Dateca. 1930-1935
copper on wood base
On view
Media - 1967.57.28 - SAAM-1967.57.28_1 - 51965
The Janitor Who Paints
Dateca. 1937, repainted after 1940
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.1002 - SAAM-1967.59.1002_1-000001 - 2838
Dateca. 1940
oil on burlap
Not on view
Media - 1977.47.31 - SAAM-1977.47.31_1 - 4960
acrylic on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1989.23 - SAAM-1989.23_1 - 51984
Can Fire in the Park
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1993.47 - SAAM-1993.47_1 - 51992
Top of the Line (Steel)
mixed media: enamel, unbraided canvas roping, and metal on plywood
Not on view
Media - 1994.25 - SAAM-1994.25_1 - 52002
Dateca. 1988
acrylic on plywood with fiberboard
On view
Media - 1994.32 - SAAM-1994.32_1 - 52003
Evening Rendezvous
oil on linen
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 - 1994.55 - SAAM-1994.55_2 - 118324
welded steel
Not on view
Media - 1995.22.1 - SAAM-1995.22.1_1 - 65784
John Henry
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1999.73 - SAAM-1999.73_1 - 52018
Echo I
mixed media on wood
Not on view
Media - 2006.24.5 - SAAM-2006.24.5_1 - 67164
Moon Masque
oil and collage on canvas
Not on view
Media - 2009.29 - SAAM-2009.29_1 - 73051
DC Waterfront, Maine Avenue
oil on board
Not on view
Media - 2011.25.1 - SAAM-2011.25.1_1 - 75979
Red Stripe with Green Background
oil on linen
Not on view


Benny Andrews
born Madison, GA 1930-died New York City 2006
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.

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.

Melvin Edwards
born Houston, TX 1937

Melvin Edwards was raised in Houston, Texas. His artistic talent was recognized at an early age, and he was encouraged to study the works of European old masters at the Museum of Fine Arts.

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.

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Felrath Hines
born Indianapolis, IN 1913-died Silver Spring, MD 1993

Painter. Hines studied design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his paintings—in the tradition of the De Stijl movement—often contain strong design elements.

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

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Ellis Wilson
born Mayfield, KY 1899-died New York City 1977