At Large  July 18, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Augusta Savage: Pioneering Black Sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance

Photo by Andrew Herman, circa 1938. Wikimedia Commons

Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created as part of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. 

Acclaimed American sculptor, activist, and arts educator Augusta Savage (1892—1962) was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance who fought for equal rights for African American artists and inspired future generations as a teacher. An outspoken critic of the fetishized "negro primitive" aesthetic favored by the white art world, Savage beautifully sculpted her fellow African Americans with realism, humanity, and personality, combatting the stereotypical portrayals of the time.

Born in Florida, Savage started sculpting figures out of local red clay as a child, despite the disapproval of her family. Considering her sculptures “graven images,” her father, a Methodist minister, disapproved of her art. Savage has said that her father “licked me four or five times a week," she once recalled, "and almost whipped all the art out of me." But she continued to sculpt, becoming so adept at her craft that her high school principal had her teach clay modeling classes. 

NYPL collection, photo by Underwood & Underwood Wikimedia Commons

Augusta Savage, Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as The Harp). The sculpture was destroyed at the Fair's end in 1940. The photo was distributed by the New York World's Fair Dept. of Feature Publicity in 1939. 

Married in 1907 at the age of fifteen, Savage was widowed shortly after the birth of their daughter. She divorced her second husband in 1920, and she lost her third husband to pneumonia in 1939. 

In 1919, her sculpting prowess won her prize-winning recognition for the most original exhibit at the Palm Beach County Fair. After seeking commissions in Jacksonville, Florida, Savage moved to New York City in 1921, where she studied at the scholarship-based Cooper Union school, beating out 142 other people on the waiting list. Completing the four-year degree program in just three years, she got her first commission from the New York Public Library for a bust of W. E. B. DuBois. Working at a Manhattan steam laundry to support her family, Savage’s superb skills led to more commissions, including busts of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey and important NAACP member, William Pickens Sr.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Augusta Savage, Gamin, ca. 1929, painted plaster, 9 x 5 3⁄4 x 4 3⁄8 in. (22.9 x 14.7 x 11.2 cm.) Gift of Benjamin and Olya Margolin, 1988.57

In 1923, after her acceptance to the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts’ summer program was rescinded because she was Black, Savage wrote a letter to the New York World—the first of her many public fights for equal rights. That year, with help from grants and donations, Savage traveled to France, studied at a significant Parisian art school, won awards at the Parisian Salon and Exposition, and toured France, Belgium, and Germany.

The first African American artist elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934, Savage was also the first African American woman to open her own gallery in the US: Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. She taught painting, drawing, and sculpting; students included future artistic luminaries Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. 

Wikimedia Commons

Augusta Savage, between 1935-1947

One of four women and only two African Americans to be professionally commissioned by the 1939 New York World's Fair, Savage created a sculpture celebrating Black people’s musical impact: Lift Every Voice and Sing (or The Harp). Extremely popular and frequently photographed, the 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture depicted twelve singing African American youth as harp strings cradled by the sounding board—an outstretched forearm and hand. A young man knelt at the front and holds out music. 

Her last major exhibition was in 1939. Disheartened by the difficulties making it in New York,  she moved to Saugerties, where she continued to teach and create.

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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