Black Subjects in White Art History
"The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible."
- Toni Cade Bambara
September 2020 issue of Vogue featuring a painting by Kerry James Marshall











"Recognition of African history by black Americans preceded that recognition by the historical profession. Only in the post-World War Two era of colonial independence did mainstream, scholarly writing come to share black Americans' view. As black African nations became independent (beginning with Sudan in 1956, Ghana [formerly the Gold Coast] in 1975, and Nigeria and many others in 1960), academic history increasingly stressed the achievements of African societies." - Nell Irvin Painter, Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present, 14.

Augusta Savage with Realization, 1938.











The Conditions of Our Investigation
Seemingly few Black subjects depicted in the Global North in the pre-modern age:
  • Travel was difficult, and was largely undertaken to trade and during times of war
  • The concept of race invented in the Age of Enlightenment (1715 - 1789)
Resulting in:
  • The perception that Black people did not live and coexist with Europeans until the advent of the Atlantic slave trade in the 17th century
  • The perception that Black people did not make "art"
  • The license to dismiss and disregard the contributions of Black artists within the Western canon and art histories at large
Youth, Greece, 400 BCE.











Add to these circumstances that art history was an incredibly expensive discipline to study until the implementation of education reforms such as the G.I. Bill that made obtaining a college degree more accessible to more white people, and Affirmative Action then began the work of making admissions more equitable.

Before these reforms, white scholars insisted that Black folks had not made contributions to "art."

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Virginia, 1772.











Robert S. Duncanson, Landscape Mural, 1850 - 1852,
The Belmont (now the Taft Museum of Art), Cincinnati.











Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Thankful Poor, 1894.












James Van Der Zee, Couple with a Cadillac, 1932.











Gordon Parks, Colored Entrance, 1956.











Romare Bearden, The Dove, 1964.











Noah Purifoy, Watts Riot, 1966.











William T. Williams, Trane, 1969.











Charles the First

Jean Michel Basquiat, Charles the First, 1982.











Kara Walker, African/American, 1998.











Kehinde Wiley, Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 2012.