The Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance: A Comparison and Contrast The Renaissance Period of the 14th-16th century was a time of change and growth in the world of art. All art forms experienced progress not only in terms of the human aspect of imagination, creativity and philosophy, but also in terms of progress in available technologies and available materials and tools. The Harlem Renaissance of the sass’s and ass’s was similarly a time of change in the human condition as well as technique and subject matter. The medium of visual art, particularly painting, of both periods provides a fascinating study of comparison and contrasts.
The Renaissance was a time of prolific production of paintings, many that are now considered masterpieces. At the beginning of the 14th century a change occurred regarding the philosophy behind art. The emergence of the Renaissance Humanist movement and its focus on the human condition separate from the church gave way to a vast array of previously unused, and in some cases, taboo subject matter. There was also a revival of interest in the Greek and Roman culture, their myths and legends and the beauty of their structures and cities (Renaissance Art, 2013).
During the Harlem Renaissance there was a growing movement of independence in the African American art community. Prior to this time, there were African American artists, however there subject matter had been primarily depictions of Caucasian people, their lifestyle and culture. During the Harlem Renaissance, at the time called the New Negro Movement, there was a growing emphasis on African traditions and culture, as well as depiction of contemporary African American lifestyle and culture.
The most famous painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) said “Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black… It’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy.
Dynamic. ” (The Making of African American Identity, 2007) This exemplifies the feeling of paintings from the Harlem Renaissance. They convey movement and feeling, bringing the observer into the action of the subject. This differs from the style of painting in the Renaissance. In that they provide a feeling of observation, a “snapshot” of a particular event or subject. The observer is intrigued by the beauty, the subject, the context and the message, but not inspired to participate as they are when viewing a painting from the Harlem Renaissance.
In the latter part of the Middle Ages, paintings were primarily commissioned by the Church and the subject matter was limited to saints and biblical depictions in strict adherence to church doctrine. The use of Christian imagery and biblical subject tater continued in the Renaissance, however there was a much broader interpretation of the subjects, allowing the artist some license for his personality and beliefs to shine through and to focus on the human condition. Renaissance Art, 2013) The Renaissance works The Glorification of Mary (Botanical, 1481) and San Czarina Altarpiece (Beeline, 1 505) both portray biblical themes, but are not literal interpretations and contain contemporary people and/or images combined with the classic biblical figures. There are paintings from the Harlem Renaissance that portray spiritual and biblical subjects as well. These images are similar to the biblical/spiritual paintings from the Renaissance in that they also are subject to interpretation and are not a literal illustration.
For example, Jesus and Three Marry Monsoon, 1939) is a portrayal of the crucifixion of Christ, but is far from the traditional image as portrayed in the Bible and in classical art pieces. The development of using oil paint on canvas and its widespread use revolutionized painting. Prior to this, the techniques were based on plaster, wet or dry, and the use of oil and tempura as binders. These works were primarily done directly on the walls of a structure and were limited to being viewed at the site of heir creation. When oil on canvas began to be used, paintings became portable and as a result more accessible.
The Harlem Renaissance did not produce any revolutionary mediums however there was a new emphasis on conveying emotion through the use of color, tone and light and provided relatable art for African Americans as well as giving the world a glimpse of the culture that existed in African American homes and neighborhoods. To compare and contrast the paintings of The Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance in a direct manner, consider the Renaissance painting The School at Athens (Raphael, 1509) and The Train Station (Elision, 1935).
In School Raphael has depicted the more than fifty Greek Philosophers in a great hall, socializing and presumably sharing ideas. The tone is expressed through sharp lines and use of color to give a three dimensional aspect to the piece. This piece is a technical marvel while at the same time providing a commentary on the sharing of ideas and wisdom and conveying the artist respect for the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle as they are the at the center of the piece. In Station, Ellison has relied less on technical perfection and more on the conveyance of movement and simple portrayal of form, almost primitive.
However, the primitive painting feel is deceptive, as each person is very expressive and the observer can feel the urgency and movement portrayed by the artist. This painting also provides social commentary by highlighting the exodus of African American’s to the North, and portraying the only African American visible on the south bound platform as a servant. The Renaissance of the 14th to 16th provides a legacy of masterpieces in painting, literature, sculpture and philosophy that has effected each subsequent period and is still relevant today. The Harlem Renaissance is similarly influential in today’s culture.
The music and literature of the Harlem Renaissance have been adopted into mainstream American Culture and are familiar to the populace. The visual art is less known, but still influential. The use and allusion to African symbols and images found in the paintings of the Harlem Renaissance are still found today in contemporary African American art. The bright colors and movement of the Harlem Renaissance pieces depicting African American urban life are easily recognizable and appreciated today (Severely, 2003). Because of the cultural significance of its placement in between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Harlem