The Harlem Renaissance at the Met: An Explosion of Joy

Sandra Bertrand


Imagine a day after the rain, when a houseful of young children is let out into the sunshine to play.  Their exuberance and sheer joy of regaining freedom is infectious and absolute. Visitors to the Met’s invigorating retrospective, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism, will feel the same emotion as this unbound wave of life washes over the senses. 

The groundbreaking exhibition, The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism, explores the far-reaching and everyday ways in which Black artists portrayed modern life. Through some 160 works of painting, sculpture, photography, film, and ephemera, the new Black culture was taking shape.  From the 1920s–40s in New York City’s Harlem and nationwide, these were the early decades of the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans began to move away from the segregated rural South to find new invigorated lives.



It's worth looking at some of the passionate players who made such a life-changing movement possible.  Witold Reiss was a German immigrant who became the principal illustrator of Alain Locke’s seminal book, The New Negro. The purpose of art, according to Locke, was to “discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have obscured and overlaid.”  (There are many examples of the periodicals of the day on display if the viewers can tear themselves away from the wealth of portraits and urban scenes that fill the walls.) 

A lovely portrait of poet Langston Hughes by Reiss greets the viewer on entering.  Another Reiss portrait, The Actress (1925), gives us an almost larger-than-life personality, her hand lifted in unapologetic persuasion to an unseen audience.



Aaron Douglas, another illustrator for the New Negro, became the foremost history painter of the period and his origin stories and biblical allegories are masterpieces of style wedded to substance.  Across four monumental panels, elegant silhouettes emerge from their pastel backgrounds to hold the eye.

Along with Douglas, the sculptor Augusta Savage helped develop a whole generation of artists who came after her. Her sculpture, Gamin (1930) immortalizes a young street urchin.



Two portraits that project a power and timelessness inherent in their female subjects are standouts in the exhibition. And no two depictions could be more opposite in their execution. Laura Wheeler Waring’s Girl with Pomegranate ca. (1940) is a rarely seen portrait that manages to evoke a moment of somber stillness in her subject.  The symbol of the pomegranate in her hand is an emblem of prosperity, fertility, and sensuality. Charles Henry Alston’s Girl in a Red Dress from 1934 suggests in the elongation of the neck, in its pictorial flatness a Black priestess in modern dress.  She manages to evoke some of Modigliani’s most iconic portraits.

There’s no question that the juxtaposition of artists such as Matisse, Edvard Munch, and Pablo Picasso and their subjects from the African diaspora enhance the richness of this exhibition.  In particular, the Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen’s White Feathers (Plume Blanches) from 1910-12 gives us a gorgeous Black model whose white hat competes for prominence in the canvas.  Such a subject was no doubt inspired by his trip to North Africa. Nola Hatterman, another Dutch painter, provides the right tone of insouciance in her horn player subject, an émigré from Suriname, a former Dutch colony, to Amsterdam.



Photography played a central role in celebrating Harlem’s high society swells and no better cameraman was on hand to glorify them than James Van Der See.  His works are generously interspersed among the paintings.  Another sampling can be found in my review for Highbrow Magazine of his exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in April 2022.

Jazz was the life-affirming blare that punctuated the very air of Harlem.  Perhaps no better artist was born to evoke its charisma in the culture than New Orleans-born Archibald J. Motley, Jr. He reveled in his native city’s African and creole charms and filled his canvases with the color and vividness of the clubs and the streets.  Motley, freed from the racial restrictions of his home country, enjoyed a one-year Guggenheim Fellowship in Paris, creating the clamor of café life in several canvases.



The irrepressible energy of Harlem could not be hamstrung by academic excellence and sobriety for long.  Street Life by William H. Johnson (1939-40) shows an artist in full expression of his folk art.  His couple, she in red gloves, he in a trendy yellow jacket, are ready for a night on the town.  Another Johnson portrait, Three Children (1940), gives us an almost cartoon treatment of his subjects and it’s a delight.

Such an exhibit could not overlook the works of two giants of art as social construct.  Jacob Lawrence is a brilliant stylist, never more so than in Pool Parlor (1942).  The first work of the artist to enter the Met collection, it’s easy to sense the freedom and devil-may-care in his pool players. A master work in angles, you can almost hear the cue sticks piercing the air, the balls exploding off the canvas. 



Sometimes the best is saved for last, and Romare Bearden’s The Block (1971) in the final exhibition room may arguably be just that.  His social concerns were heightened by the German expressionist George Grosz, who taught Bearden at the Art Students League.  One can feel, passing from one end of the painting to the other, the pulsing life of the barber shop, the funeral home, the inner life of those watching the action below from their window ledges. 

Undoubtedly, one of the major takeaways of this exhibit is the importance paid to the Negro as subject, the existential reality of the Black man, woman, or child that can no longer be concealed or ignored.  The power of this portraiture, whether giving homage to the naturalism of academic tradition, to a modernist European-fostered style, or rooted in an African American folk motif, is here on full display.  And the result is something bold, boisterous, and totally unique—it stands as a testament to the Black spirit, which could no longer remain silent.



The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 28, 2024.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photo Credits: Sandra Bertrand


not popular
Bottom Slider: 
In Slider