PIONEERING HARLEM RENAISSANCE ARTIST AUGUSTA SAVAGE TO BE SHOWCASED
AT NEW-YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman
On View May 3 – July 28, 2019
New York, NY – March 19, 2019 – The New-York Historical Society presents the work of Augusta Savage (1892-1962) in Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman. Savage overcame poverty, racism, and sexual discrimination to become an instrumental artist, educator, and community organizer during the Harlem Renaissance; yet her work is largely unknown today. On view May 3 –July 28, 2019, the exhibition features more than 50 works of art and archival materials that explore Savage’s legacy through her own sculptures as well as the work of the emerging artists she inspired, including Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight. Organized by the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, where it was curated by Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is coordinated at New-York Historical by Wendy N.E. Ikemoto, Ph.D., associate curator of American art.
“Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman celebrates art, activism, and women’s history through the life and work of August Savage, a visionary artist fundamental to the Harlem Renaissance and to American art history,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “This landmark exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to understand and appreciate the artistic greatness of Ms. Savage’s legacy, as well as the many challenges she faced as a woman and an African American.”
Born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, Augusta Savage moved to Harlem to study art in 1921 and graduated from The Cooper Union School of Art, where she completed a four-year program in three years. Despite having a prominent scholarship to the Fontainebleau School of the Arts in Paris rescinded due to her race—the selection committee declared “it would not be wise to have a colored student”—Savage studied elsewhere in Paris from 1929-31 to further her practice. When she returned to New York, Savage established her own studio in Harlem to offer free art classes to children and adults.
Savage was one of 12 women artists commissioned for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and the only African American woman selected to participate. She created Lift Every Voice and Sing (1939) for the occasion—a 16-foot-tall sculpture of Black youth in the form of a harp, inspired by the hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem. Unfortunately, Savage lacked both the funds to cast the work in bronze and the space to store it, so like many artworks at the World’s Fair, it was destroyed when the event ended. Lift Every Voice and Sing exists only in the form of souvenir replicas, like the version on display in the gallery. Its exhibition marks the 80th anniversary of the New York World’s Fair.
Several sculptures on view reflect Savage’s interest in combining realistic detail with powerful expressiveness. The Diving Boy (c. 1939), one of the few full-sized works by Savage that exists today, emphasizes line and the elongation of form. Savage’s depictions of African American figures also challenged dominant racial stereotypes. Gamin (c. 1930), a portrait bust of her nephew, portrays the boy with a strong, contemplative gaze; and Portrait of a Baby (1942), a sweet terracotta work, recalls Savage’s first childhood forays into sculpture when she played with red clay dirt at her home in Florida.
Savage fought to create opportunities for many Harlem artists and became a beacon for the community. She created the free Harlem Community Art Center in partnership with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which would become a model for other community centers nationwide. In Savage’s words: “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” Her 1934-35 portrait bust of Gwendolyn Knight skillfully captures the young artist, who studied and taught in Savage’s studio and said of her mentor: “By looking at her, I understood that I could be an artist if I wanted to be.” Knight’s husband Jacob Lawrence also studied with Savage in the early 1930s before she helped launch his career, advocating for him to work with the Federal Art Project. On view in the exhibition are works by Knight and Lawrence as well as Romare Bearden and William Artis. These demonstrate Savage’s deep connections to many of the 20th century’s leading African American artists.
Programming & Publication
Families can enjoy special story times at the Museum on select weekends. Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, a companion catalogue, published by London-based firm D Giles Limited, further explores Augusta Savage’s impact and legacy. Contributors include Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D.; Kirsten Pai Buick, Ph.D. (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque); Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D. (University of California, Irvine); with a foreword by Dr. Howard Dodson, Jr., Director Emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The book will be available in the NYHistory Store and from online retailers.
Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman is organized by the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sotheby’s Prize. Important support provided by Carol Sutton Lewis and William M. Lewis, Jr., Andrew and Howard Marks, and Agnes Gund. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
Major funding for New-York Historical's Equality and Justice for All initiative, exploring the history of identity, race, and civil rights in America, has been provided by the New York City Council with support from Council Member Helen Rosenthal and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and by Empire State Development and the New York State Council on the Arts under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council Initiative.
About the New-York Historical Society
The New-York Historical Society, one of America’s preeminent cultural institutions, is dedicated to fostering research and presenting history and art exhibitions and public programs that reveal the dynamism of history and its influence on the world of today. Founded in 1804, New-York Historical has a mission to explore the richly layered history of New York City and State and the country, and to serve as a national forum for the discussion of issues surrounding the making and meaning of history. New-York Historical is also home to the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, one of the oldest, most distinguished libraries in the nation—and one of only 20 in the United States qualified to be a member of the Independent Research Libraries Association—which contains more than three million books, pamphlets, maps, newspapers, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.
Image credits: Unidentified photographer, Augusta Savage, 1930. Gelatin silver print, 6 x 4 in. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, Photographs and Prints Division, Augusta Savage Portrait Collection, 83-1053.
Augusta Savage (1892–1962), Gamin, c. 1930. Painted plaster, 9¼ x 6 x 4 in., The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Jacksonville, Florida. Purchased with funds from the Morton R. Hirschberg Bequest, AP.2013.1.1