New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934

Article excerpt

Theresa Leininger-Miller. New Negro Artists in Paris: African American Painters and Sculptors in the City of Light, 1922-1934. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 320 pp., 20 color ills., 12o b/w. $60, $32 paper.

Art historians have come to insist upon the importance of African American cultural influences in the shaping of modernism and American art. The literary, musical, and artistic accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance in Manhattan, and the performances of Josephine Baker in Paris frequently act as flash points in this discussion. However, few art historians have taken on the necessary archival and theoretical tasks of tracing and assessing the lives and works of African American artists beyond these well-worn examples of modern interracial exchange. Further, the discussion often presumes a one-way influence, too often leaving behind African American art and artists after the moment of contact. In her New Negro Artists in Paris:African American Pointers and Sculptors in the City of Light, (922-1934, Theresa Leininger-Miller bravely assumes these undertakings, and smartly reconsiders African American art of the inter-war period as something more than a tourist attraction or modernist inspiration. The book-which should attract readers interested in Americar art history, as well as in the history of international modernism-provides ample evidence for the multidirectionality of cultural influence and change in the hustle and bustle of the early twentieth century.

Organized as a series of individual arthistorical biographies thick with archival labor, the text is distinguished by being at once broad in historical scope and keenly-- even intimately-detailed. Offering historical reconstructions of their experiences abroad, Leininger-Miller's survey includes the sculptors Elizabeth Prophet and Augusta Savage, the painters Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff, and Archibald Motley, and the printmaker Albert Alexander Smith. The author describes their struggles to maintain financial stability, their reactions to French modern art, their indulgences in urban diversions, but, above all, their artistic practices while in France. Each artist worked according to different aesthetic principles and had widely varying experiences during their Parisian visits.

Leininger-Miller has chosen to focus on the twelve years between 1922 and 1934-- coincident with the so-called Harlem Renaissance.' Interwar Harlem and the presence of Leininger-Miller's artists abroad are not unrelated historical subjects: black artists owed their opportunity to travel in large part to the growth in white Americans' interest in African American culture, from which the popularity of Harlem nightlife also stemmed. Such historical concern with the issue of patronage comprises the crux of the book and also determined the study's end date of 1934, when the Depression discouraged the artists' financial backers, and Parisian exhibitions of black American art declined conspicuously.

By virtue of its extensive documentation, New Negro Artists in Paris raises more questions than it claims to answer. Calling her book "clearly an initial study, subject to revision and expansion" (xxii), Leininger-- Miller offers her work as a remedy to the paucity of historical documentation of African American artists. Flagging certain routes of inquiry along the way-such as French pan-Africanism and the black French response to African American artists-the author generously and hopefully leaves such ventures to later studies.

A trip to France had of course long figured as a requisite pilgrimage for budding American artists. While expectations of France's cultural offerings shifted throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, a stay in Paris persisted as the optimal foundation of an artist's development until the 1930s, when empty pockets, nationalist sentiments, and government sponsorship kept artists more firmly rooted in the American scene. …