What Is African American Art History?

Art|Art History

African American art history is a long and complex story that dates back to the early days of slavery and continues to the present. African American art has not only influenced but also been influenced by the culture and experiences of its creators. This art form has long been used to express ideas, emotions, and stories in a powerful way, while often reflecting the struggles and hardships faced by black Americans.

Throughout history, African American artists have made their mark on all aspects of visual culture. From painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking to music, film and theater, African American art has been a major component of artistic expression in the United States.

One of the earliest practitioners of African American art was Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872), who became one of the first professional artist of any race working in America during the 19th century. Duncanson was an accomplished landscape painter who used his works to express his feelings about both freedom and slavery in America.

In the late 19th century, artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) pushed against racial stereotypes with their paintings depicting African Americans as dignified individuals with noble characteristics. Tanner’s works were among some of the first African American pieces to be accepted by mainstream audiences in America.

The Harlem Renaissance period from 1919-1935 is considered one of the most important movements for African American art in history. During this time, a number of prominent artists began making works that celebrated black life and culture while also reflecting on issues such as racism and discrimination. Artists such as Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) created powerful works that addressed themes such as identity and justice while also incorporating elements from different cultures around the world into their pieces.

The civil rights movement in America during the 1950s through 1970s provided yet another platform for African American artists to make their mark on society with pieces that addressed themes such as justice, equality, cultural pride and community solidarity. Activist artists such as Romare Bearden (1911-1988) made iconic works which sought to bring attention to the struggles facing black Americans at this time while also celebrating their resilience and strength.


African American art is an incredibly rich part of our cultural history that can be traced back centuries ago up until today’s modern times. It expresses ideas about freedom, identity, justice, solidarity and more — all through a unique lens borne out of experience shared by countless generations of African Americans across time.