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Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, edited by James Romaine and Phoebe Wolfskill, offers a unified and underexamined perspective on artwork by late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century African American artists. Each of the fourteen chapters showcases a selected artwork by an individual artist, highlighting how “engagement with religious subjects, symbols, or themes can be an expression of an array of concerns related to racial, political, and socioeconomic identity” (3). From neoclassical sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, modernist painters Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley Jr. and others, to self-taught artists like William Edmondson, the case studies in Beholding query artist motivations and audiences. This singling out of drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculptures with religious themes, in this instance Christian, opens up possibilities for new understanding about artistic production, joining and complicating race, class, and gender as categories of relevance.
Romaine and Wolfskill suggest that historians and critics have overlooked African American artists’ relationship to religious faith, and instead put a “heightened focus on racial identity,” ignoring what has been “hidden in plain sight” (1). Citing Margaret Rose Vendryes, James Smalls uses that very phrase to explain how James Richmond Barthé (1901–89) sculpted racialized nudes that gave cover to his expressions of the erotic and the physical as spiritual experience (90). By interpreting work by African Americans based mainly on racial identity, critics neglect vital signifiers. In addition to being African American, Barthé was a closeted gay male Catholic, which further impelled his sculpture to become a “carrier of racial, spiritual, and erotic messages,” says Smalls (92). In addition to Barthé, Lewis and Motley were Catholics, and “Sister” Gertrude Morgan and James VanDerZee converted. But, with the possible exception of Sister Gertrude, rarely has faith been a factor in assessments of these artists.
Kirsten Pai Buick wonders if the difficulty Lewis (1845–1907) experienced at Oberlin College—accused of poisoning classmates, then of theft—may have arisen from prejudice against her Catholicism. Just as vital in shaping her artistic career as her African American and Native American ancestry was her Catholic commitment. Moving to Rome was not only a means to escape American racism; it nurtured Lewis artistically and spiritually, while also providing patronage.
Did painter Archibald J. Motley Jr. (1891–1981) use religion to distinguish class affiliation? Wolfskill notes that Tongues (Holy Rollers) (1929) and Untitled (Street Scene, Chicago) (Gettin’ Religion) (1936) present “emotional and meditative methods of Christian worship as indication of socioeconomic class” (63). Early transplants from New Orleans to Chicago, Motley’s family lived in a white neighborhood and attended an established Catholic church. Newly migrated southern blacks brought along country ways, forming small storefront churches that some disdained. Motley’s similarly titled Getting Religion (1948) features a preacher plying his trade on the same nighttime streets as prostitutes. In contrast, Motley bestows middle-class status by tastefully mounting crucifixes on walls behind his grandmother of Mending Socks (1924) and in Self-Portrait (Myself at Work) (1933).
Writing about photographer James VanDerZee (1886–1983), Carla Williams traces his faith journey through three distinct denominations. He was raised Episcopalian in Massachusetts. The family moved to Harlem in 1906, where he married in a Baptist ceremony. He later converted to Catholicism, the faith of his second wife. Perhaps this range of experience attuned him to church social functions and the role of faith in memorials, which he documented. He also honored religious leaders including Barefoot Prophet (Elder Clayhorn Martin) (1929) and Daddy Grace (1938). That 43 percent of Harlem residents were church members may have proved influential as well.
Sometimes the less-studied Christian topics flesh out the puzzle of an artist’s career. Caroline Goeser discusses eight gouache-on-paper images Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) painted to illustrate God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). James Weldon Johnson’s poetry spurred him to “create a new visual language that transformed conceptions of blackness visually and thematically by positioning the black figure as central to an expanded Judeo-Christian visual expression” (37). In his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), Johnson’s musician protagonist sought to bring “a new modernism to the old spirituals” by transcribing the aural into written music. Likewise, Douglas sought to create them as visual text. In his words, “I used the starkness of the old spirituals as my model—and at the same time I tried to make my painting modern” (49). In style and figuration these flattened geometric shapes read as formative to those Douglas would paint in his masterwork of 1934, the large, four-panel painting Aspects of Negro Life.
Kymberly N. Pinder looks at work Romare Bearden (1911–88) painted and drew in 1945, known collectively as his Passion of Christ series. Just out of the army and back at the easel, like other artists of his generation, the atrocities of World War II lead him to consider Judeo-Christian themes. Notable for being a whole series on Christian topics, as Pinder writes, “[i]mages like Untitled (The Resurrection) (1945) and He Is Arisen (1945) are as much about Bearden’s own personal artistic struggles, growth, and rebirth as they are about the universality of Christ’s story and modern art” (161). Themes of baptism and rebirth remained within his oeuvre, suggesting the Passion images were conceptual studies beyond advancing Christian doctrine. The Prevalence of Ritual: Baptism (1964), as example, was a breakthrough for Bearden, pioneering his technique of enlarging photographs into collage compositions when he was active with the artists group Spiral that year.
If Christian themes were an interlude for some, for others they comprised the heft of an important career. Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), covered by Romaine, believed religious pictures should have artistic qualities, be artistically relevant, and translate biblical narratives. Since 1896 when his painting Daniel in the Lions’ Den (1896) received honorable mention at the Paris Salon, Tanner’s mature work was mostly devoted to Christian themes or religious sites. The Resurrection of Lazarus (1896) is an example of biblical exegesis, reenacting the story of Lazarus rising from his tomb, but represented with aesthetic innovation. Tanner draws the viewer toward Christ, barely noticeable between Mary and Martha by strategic use of value and directional lines. Similarly, the figures in The Two Disciples at the Tomb (ca. 1906) appear as illumined faces within shrouded darkness, “translating biblical narrative into artistic form” (32).
Amy K. Hamlin describes Jesus and the Three Marys (ca. 1939–40) by William H. Johnson (1901–70) as “a juggernaut of a picture” (75). Among his best-known paintings, “Johnson does not illustrate but rather assimilates the subject into his formal language, drawing the viewer to the emotive qualities and physicality of paint application, color, and line more so than the specificities of Christ’s crucifixion” (84). Johnson’s modernist visual language expresses internalized feelings evoked by Christianity.
Kristin Schwain looks at The First Book of Moses, Called Genesis (1989) by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000), an eight-part devotional work also employing modernist visual language to interpret the biblical past for contemporary viewers, while elevating the Preacher, here an homage to Adam Clayton Powell Sr., as an African American hero. This multipart stylistic structure continued a way of working Lawrence had begun in the 1930s, with narrative series honoring Toussaint L’Ouverture in 1938, Harriet Tubman in 1938–39, Frederick Douglass in 1939–40, and the magisterial Migration series of 1941, celebrating figures and institutions that shaped black life and culture.
Malvin Gray Johnson (1896–1934), as discussed by Jacqueline Francis, was not known for religious themes, yet he made more than twelve works that “visually interpret black folk songs” (51). He too used a modernist visual language to represent the spiritual—for example, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (1928)—in a way that resituated the song’s meaning.
Modernizing religious songs motivated the largely unknown ink drawings by Allan Rohan Crite (1910–2007) discussed in Beholding by Julie Levin Caro. Made in 1939 to illustrate the spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” published by Harvard Press in 1944, the drawings feature urban settings, orderly processions, and modern clothes that defy expectations for visual interpretations of Christian themes by African American artists. Crite’s thoroughly researched ecclesiastical symbolism demonstrates his self-identification as a traditionally trained liturgical artist closely associated with the Episcopal Church, challenging class-based perceptions.
Christian themes have often been the domain of self-taught artists. Richard Powell reviews ten paintings Horace Pippin (1888–1946) completed toward the end of his life. Christ (Crowned with Thorns) (1938) and others may have been based on popular reproductions of Bible stories. Three paintings titled The Holy Mountain (1945), inspired by passages in Isaiah and indebted stylistically to The Peaceable Kingdom (1833) by Edward Hicks, convey Pippin’s version of wolf, lion, and lamb, with the addition of a black shepherd. As the paintings were finished at the end of World War II, the theme of peace, unique for Pippin, seems timely.
Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900–1980) was in her thirties when she was “divinely ordained” (113). Elaine Y. Yau writes that Morgan had left her husband, moved to New Orleans for missionary work, then became a “bride of Christ” who “drew and painted as she prayed and preached” for the rest of her life (114).
Edward M. Puchner rightly asks, “Why have scholars largely overlooked the significance of [William] Edmondson’s religious experience in interpreting his art?” (128). When carved stone sculptures by Edmondson (1874–1951) were exhibited at MoMA in 1937, Alfred Barr approved of his level of abstraction and critics praised his lack of education, calling him a “modern primitive” (127). Jesus Christ himself had appeared in the sky before the man and told him to “carve something,” yet this information escaped notice? The epiphany compelled Edmondson to diligently study stonemasonry for tombstone carving, which fortuitously became his livelihood during the Great Depression.
Professor of African American Studies and Art History, Western Illinois University
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