Compiled and annotated by Eleanor Pritchett, YC ‘19.
Aaron Douglas was a Black American painter and illustrator whose work defined the visuals of the Harlem Renaissance.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1899, Douglas graduated from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1922. He taught art classes at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, for several years before moving to Harlem in 1925, just as what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance was coming into full swing. Though he had only intended to stay in New York for a short time, Douglas, along with his wife Alta, maintained a residence in Harlem for many decades, and was an integral part of the artistic culture of New York in the twenties and thirties. He provided dozens of illustrations for magazines and books over the course of a decade, including for the magazines Opportunity and The Crisis and books by James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay. Having studied under the German artist Winold Reiss, Douglas developed an artistic style which used African elements to portray American Blackness in a highly symbolic manner intricately connected with the Art Deco and modernist movements.
In the early thirties, Douglas took a teaching position at Fisk University, and continued teaching and painting until his death in 1979. Besides his book art, Douglas is known for his murals, including the one which adorns the NYPL’s Schomburg Center, and his portraits, several of which hang in the National Portrait Gallery.
This listing comprises a nearly complete collection of the book art of Aaron Douglas, including more than a dozen first edition books associated with the Harlem Renaissance, complete with their Douglas-designed jackets. Numbers in italics represent call numbers of copies held in Beinecke’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters. Note that in many cases Beinecke holds multiple copies; the copy noted has its jacket.
Books Featuring Illustrations by Aaron Douglas
Bontemps, Arna. God Sends Sunday. New York, Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1931. Jackets: JWJ Zan B644 931g.
Jacket depicts the black silhouette of a traveling man on a raised set of rocks, an overnight bag behind him, looking up into a pink sky. Above him, in the sky, a pair of dancers step on floating musical notes, the woman dressed in a frilled hoop skirt with a parasol and a pair of ostrich feathers in her hair, and the man dressed in a striped top hat, cane, and waistcoat. Below the jacket, the man’s silhouette is embossed into a brown woven cover in black, and the sky becomes blank.
Cullen, Countee, editor. Caroling Dusk. New York and London, Harper and Bros., 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan C897 927c, Copies 1 and 2.
A pattern of small, angular leaves and abstracted floral shapes, printed in red, covers the entire jacket. The work’s title, subtitle, and author are superimposed in a black-bordered rectangle at the top of the page. Beneath the jacket, the title card appears again as a paper sticker on a black cover. There are no advertisements on the back of this jacket; only the red pattern of vegetation. Inside, the endpapers have the same pattern as the jacket, and Douglas has drawn several similar incidental illustrations as borders and accents.
Fauset, Arthur Huff. For Freedom. Philadelphia, Franklin Publishing and Supply Co., 1927. Jacket: JWJ Zan F2748 927F; some water damage.
A two-color jacket, in navy blue and orange, depicts a male figure in the center shackled to a female figure on the right, and being branded by another male figure on the left. Surrounding the three, in the same cut-out style, are flowers at the bottom and tropical vegetation at the top. The center man calls out, with the prominent lips he shares with the other figures, into a sharply-angled sun at top center. Douglas’s name, in a relatively large, rounded cursive script, appears in full above the author’s name. Beneath the jacket, the entire illustration is embossed into the cover in inverted colors.
Fisher, Rudolph. Walls of Jericho. New York and London, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. Jackets: JWJ Zan F536, Copies 1 and 2.
In black on a yellow background, a female figure appears to plead with a larger, male figure, whose attention is turned away from her, to a face which appears in profile, curving around the spine of the book. This large profile shares the recognizably Black features of a jutting chin, large lips and nostrils, cut out in yellow, and a sloped forehead. The face is outlined in red, as is a set of skyscrapers on the opposite side of the cover. Above the figures appear the title and the author’s name; below is an image of a covered truck. On the cover of the book, which is black, red and green borders are embossed around gold, serifed letters and a small, ovular red and green design.
Glenn, Isa. Little Pitchers. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. Jackets: Za G487 927L, Copies 1 and 2.
This jacket is cut into several irregular polygon shapes in bright yellow, red, and green, in each of which appears a different image. At the top, in a yellow shape, the title and author are set in green condensed Art Deco type. Below, at center, in a green shape, a set of red and yellow pitchers overlap with each other. In three other shapes on the front of the jacket are differently cropped images of people’s faces, with pointed noses and unaccentuated lips. One of these figures wraps around to the spine, so that his eye is visible from the front and side of the object.
Gollock, Georgina A. Sons of Africa. New York, Friendship Press, 1928. JWJ Za9 D74 1928S Jacket partially ripped around corners and edges.
Jacket entirely covered with a spread of dense black foliage, trees, flowers, and animals, which become discernible from the larger piece only on close inspection of the print’s angular shapes and wide curves. Below the jacket, the same print is replicated on the book covers themselves. Above each chapter heading is a rectangular cut in the style of the jacket, and below the final line of each chapter, a smaller insignia. Three sets of these repeat. The first is a forest scene in which a river runs through a dense jungle, two gazelles appearing on either side; this is paired with a simple, four-petaled stamp. The second is a pyramid bordered to the top by a wave that seems to indicate storm clouds, and to the sides by diagonal lines extending from the top line to bottom mounds, seeming to indicate a storm; this is paired with the same panther mask from the title page. The third is a sunrise bordered on either side by dense foliage, paired with a similar drawing condensed into a small trapezoid.
Hughes, Langston. Fine Clothes to the Jew. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan H874 927f, Copy 3 (copies 1 and 4 have less well-preserved jackets).
Two mask-like black faces flank the sides of this jacket, mouths open as if speaking to each other, with lips and nostrils highlighted in white and dark pink drop shadows. On the spine, the title and author name are set vertically, with beautiful Art Deco dots between words. On the back, the same black-pink-light pink color scheme from the cover highlights ad copy for the book itself and the publisher’s information in a few angular and curved shapes. Below the jacket, abstract parallel pastel lines adorn the front and back covers, and the title information is embossed on a black leather spine.
—. Not Without Laughter. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1930. Jackets: JWJ Zan H874 930n, Copies 1, 2, and 3.
Depicting a musical scene, with a pink woman dancing over pink flowers while a black-silhouetted man with pink lips plays the guitar. A boy sits by a water spout at the bottom right of the page; another woman in pink watches the first, and behind her, a black-silhouetted woman in checkered apron and head scarf watches with her hands on her hips. Pleasant silhouettes of sunflowers appear at the bottom of the page, and leaves from a tree hang over top of the title. Behind the jacket, the cover is a woven pink; a design which incorporates the sunflowers borders the spine and covers.
—. Aaron Douglas, illustrator. “Opportunity art folio”: Six poems, printed as broadsides by Opportunity magazine.
A folio-size sheet of linen paper on which is printed, in brown-orange ink, the silhouette of an African mask with a woman’s thin, angular features and swept-up hair, is folded around six light blue broadsides printed in navy with an illustration by Douglas atop a poem by Hughes. The woman’s head sits atop a statue torso. Beside her to the left and right are zig-zagging plant-like shapes which support the names of the two collaborators. On the back of the folio sheet is a small, square stamp depicting a pyramid with a rising or setting sun behind it and a body of water before it, underneath which is set “OPPORTUNITY ART FOLIO” in small letters.
The first broadside illustration, for “Misery,” is an angular piece titled “Play De Blues,” and depicts a person, seated, playing a piano, and a standing woman listening. Douglas depicts music rising from the piano in parallel wavy lines across the top and corner of the illustration. These are some of the only curved lines in the piece.
The second, for “Down an’ Out,” is titled “I Needs A Dime For Beer,” and depicts a woman holding out a pan inside a room which looks out onto foliage.
The third, for “Lonesome Place,” is titled “Weary As I Can Be,” and depicts a man dressed in a suit and hat lounging in a scene of foliage, looking out ahead of him.
The fourth, for “Bound No’th Blues,” is titled “On De No’thern Road,” and depicts a man determinedly marching ahead through grass and trees. Behind him, a long river winds its way to a sunset at the left side of the illustration.
The fifth, for “Hard Luck,” is titled “Ma Bad Luck Card.” In it, a man in a jacket holds his hand to his hip and stares over his shoulder, where a huge card with a number three and diamonds is depicted in the air. To his left are leaves above and grass below.
The sixth and final poem, “Feet o’ Jesus,” is printed on white paper and does not include the names of Douglas or Hughes, nor does the image on it have a caption. Unlike the other illustrations, which are simple silhouettes with no color gradation, this final illustration depicts, in overlapping layers of various opacities of blue, a man with his head and arms lifted to the sky, his feet in grass beside a body of water, and a corner of foliage above him. Coming down from top right are rays of light, and up from the bottom right are concentric circles of the same.
Common among four of the images is a set of large, rounded leaves in the top left corner of the illustration. In one, however, the leaves cover most of the top of the frame, and in another, the left corner is occupied by the music waves from the piano. This accent in a similar place in each image ties the set together, even at the last image, which is so different from the rest.
Johnson, Charles S., ed. Ebony and Topaz: A Collectanea. New York: Opportunity, National Urban League, 1927. JWJ Zan J631 +927e, copies 1 and 2.
This collection put out by Opportunity magazine includes four illustrations by Douglas, three with nuanced color gradients which accompany pieces of writing, and one in black on white, of a man carrying a sack through a forest, which stands on its own. The three which accompany pieces of writing are for “Jumby,” “On the Road One Day, Lord,” and “General Drums.”
Johnson, James Weldon. Autobiography of an Ex-Colo[u]red Man. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan J632 912Ad, Ae (in a separate printing with a red version of Douglas’s jacket; Za V375 927j; Tanselle K66 1441.
On an orange background, the silhouette of a man sits on a rock, his back to a natural scene, his head tilted up and facing right, where a set of skyscrapers and smokestacks cover the side of the page. The flowers wrap around to the spine of the book, which also features a white sun; the cover of the book is barely adorned, orange with a blue spine embossed with floral flourishes and title.
—. God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Drawings by Aaron Douglas, lettering by C.B. Falls. New York, The Viking Press, 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan J632 927G, Copy 1 (Inscribed to Carl Van Vechten by Douglas), 2, 3, 6 and 927Gf.
A thin book of a preface and eight poems, each accompanied by a gothic typographic composition of its title by C.B. Falls in a yellow ink, and a plate illustration by Douglas on the left-hand page. Front side of jacket features Douglas’s illustration for the collection’s final poem, “The Judgment Day,” of the angel Gabriel blowing a trumpet and holding the keys to Heaven. On book cover, Falls’s interpretation of the title and author name are embossed in black on a metallic gold paper, and vice versa on the spine.
—. Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day. New York, Viking Press, 1930. Printed in an edition of 200 copies. JWJ Zan J632 930s.
A beautiful black book stamped in gold with the outline of Douglas’s Judgment Day from God’s Trombones.
Kelsey, Alice Geer. Tales from Africa. Designed by Louise E. Jefferson. Cover and decorations by Aaron Douglas. New York: Friendship Press, 1945. PS3521 E48.
Locke, Alain, editor. The New Negro: An Interpretation. Book decoration and portraits by Winold Reiss. New York : Albert and Charles Boni, 1925. JWJ Zan L79 925n, Copy 1 and 2.
Includes six drawings by Douglas accompanying the following works: “Sahdji” accompanying the story with the same title by Bruce Nugent; “Meditation” accompanying “The City of Refuge” by Rudolph Fisher; “The Poet” accompanying poems by Countee Cullen; “The Sun God” accompanying “The Creation” by James Weldon Johnson; “Music” accompanying “Jazz at Home” by J.A. Rogers; “Ancestral” accompanying “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” by Alain Locke.
Locke, Alain, and Montgomery Gregory, editors. Plays of Negro Life: A Sourcebook of Native American Drama. Illustrations by Aaron Douglas. New York and London, Harper & Bros., 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan L79 927n, Copy 1 and 2.
A pattern of large leaves or vegetation covers the entire jacket. Interspersed in these leaves are dynamic silhouettes of men, some standing in jackets with epaulettes, some low to the ground and less obviously adorned, all facing the vegetation and screaming. The work’s title, subtitle, and author are superimposed in green in a green-bordered rectangle at the top of the page. Beneath the jacket, the title card appears again as a small paper sticker on a green spine. The jacket design is printed identically in black on a blue paper cover. There are no advertisements on the back of this jacket; the pattern wraps all the way around. Inside, Douglas has drawn several similarly African-inspired incidental illustrations as borders and accents.
McKay, Claude. Banana Bottom. New York and London, Harper and Bros., 1933. Jackets: JWJ Zan M19 933b.
A large profile of a woman’s face covers the middle of this jacket. She wears a pink and green checkered headscarf, hoop earrings, and three bands around her neck, and her prominent nostrils and lips are accented in pink as well. She stares ahead with a straight posture. To her right and above her, she is surrounded by banana leaves; to her left, three women carry baskets on their heads, walking away from a rising or setting sun. On the spine, the banana leaves continue, and below, a female figure gestures at a lounging male figure.
—. Banjo. New York and London, Harper and Bros., 1929. Jackets: JWJ Zan M19 929b.
A scene on a waterfront, printed in black on orange construction paper. A man plays a banjo on a waterfront pier and two others stand beside him, chatting. Below the pier a woman in hoop earrings poses, looking up at the man with the banjo; at her feet another man swims, and above her head are the legs of a man in the process of diving into the water; the rest of his body wraps around to the spine, where another man sits on the shore. In the background is a city skyline, presumably Marseille, with a prominent bridge.
—. Home to Harlem. New York and London, Harper & Bros., 1927. Jackets: JWJ Zan M19 928ha (not a complete copy, partial jacket on publisher’s dummy), JWJ Zan M19 928h (torn, with loss to portions of corners and spine; repaired).
Printed in blue ink on magenta paper, the silhouette of a black man stands between a set of skyscrapers and the turrets of a cathedral with his arms raised as if to say, “Which one?” Behind him, the sun is setting on the skyscrapers, musical notations for jazz float above a piano, and wheels of words beckon in the background. The reverse of the jacket is entirely empty. Beneath the jacket, the cover is a pattern of abstract interlocking figures like clouds or faces in profile, with a glossy black embossed spine and glossy black corners. Inside, the endpapers repeat the title of the work letter-by-letter, interspersed with a sun or floral design.
—. A Long Way from Home. New York, L. Furman, 1937. Jackets: JWJ M19 937L, copies 1-4; on copy 1 registration on jacket is slightly off.
Depicts a small man in a fez riding a donkey on a grassy hill, looking up at a line of skyscrapers in a city he’s about to enter, which appear to belong to different places: to the far right is a North African building with an arch gate surrounded by palm trees; then several modernist skyscrapers with pointed tops, and around the spine, a Gothic cathedral. Concentric circles of light emanate from just above the man’s head, drawing the eye between him and the huge title covering the sky and wrapping around the buildings.
Morand, Paul. Black Magic. Translated by Hamish Miles, illustrated by Aaron Douglas. New York, Viking Press, 1929. Jackets: Za M794 Eg929m.
The image of a snarling mask in a cut out style, in bright yellow, red, white, and black, covers the front of this jacket; the title and author appear in the top of the mask in red. Below the jacket, a pattern in gold glitter sifted or printed onto a black cover creates a wavy checkerboard where the gold glitter pulls up and left, making sharp lines between segments, and inside each segment is a six-pointed star. On the reverse is a description of the work. Inside, Douglas has illustrated plates for each of the book’s eight chapters.
Salmon, André. The Black Venus (La négresse de Sacre-Coeur). trans. Slater Brown. New York, The Macaulay Company, 1929. JWJ Za Sa35 Eg929B.
A silhouetted naked woman strikes a dancing pose in a natural scene. She and the landscape are black with red shadows and accents on a green background. The cover of the book is gray with the title stamped in black.
—. The Blacker the Berry…: A Novel of Negro Life. New York, Macauley Co., 1929. Jacket: JWJ Zan T436 929b, Copy 1.
Front cover image in black, pale green, and dark yellow, of a black woman with long natural hair, her face lifted towards the top of the image and her lips highlighted in green. She pushes out on either side of her at a jagged canyon opening onto a yellow inside. Below the jacket the book cover is a dark brown embossed with the title and author’s name in the same typeface, with a miniature rendition of the woman from the front cover in between.
Woon, Basil. Frantic Atlantic: an intimate guide to the well-known deep. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. Beinecke’s copy (Tanselle K66 1663) lacks the jacket.
Young, Donald, ed. “The American Negro.” The Annals.1928. Jackets: JWJ Zan2 928a, copy 2.
A silhouetted man stands leaning on a shovel looking over a small industrial city as if to admire his work. A green sun rises over a red background, and smoke rises in two streams from smokestacks in the city up to the title. Behind the man is a dynamic set of high rise buildings.
Illustrations in Magazines and Ephemera
The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races. New York, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several months, 1925-1927.
- September 1926: Mask of Tut-Ankh-Amen. A realistic drawing of the mask in isolation.
- November 1926: The head of a black man looking down to the corner of the page; the man’s face is a composite of hard-lined shapes.
- December 1926: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field.” Silhouettes of three shepherds look up towards a light in the sky in rapture.
- May 1927: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” Two hands lifted in reverence out of a body of water and towards a pyramid emanating light. In many shades of blue.
- September 1927: The Burden of Black Womanhood. A giant-tall woman stands bearing the weight of a huge mass on two arms. Underneath her are natural, urban, and rural scenes.
- May 1928: The Young Blood Hungers. Two faces look out from the setting of a city into a landscape of pyramids and water.
- May 1929: The head of a modern woman with a prominent earring; behind her a sun rises, labeled NAACP.
Douglas, Aaron. “Forge Foundry.” La Revue du Monde Noir. 1931.
Includes a painting by Douglas, titled “Forge Foundry,” of three silhouetted figures working in a forge, foregrounded by an overlay of flames.
—-. Party for Grace and James Weldon Johnson (invitation). Undated. Muriel Draper Papers. YCAL MSS 49.
An orange sheet printed in letterpress in black ink. A floating, dancing couple take up the center of the page, holding hands; above their heads is the word PARTY, and below, in playful waves of text, information about the date and time.
—-. “Reading at Twilight” Metropolitan: a monthly reader. December 1935. JWJ A +M568
A colorful image of a silhouetted man reading in a natural environment, looking ahead at a grand castle, appears on page 8 of this magazine.
Fire!!: Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. Wallace Thurman, editor. New York, Nov. 1926. JWJ MSS 12 Box 1 Folder 17 and JWJ A +F514.
The cover of this magazine, printed on red paper in black ink features a person’s head adorned with a large hoop earring and accented with a sphinx. Within, poems and illustrations are interspersed with prose; three line-art drawings of one page each by Douglas appear in the middle of the volume, and he is also credited for the magazine’s “incidental art decorations,” such as the Africanist borders which appear on many pages.
Harlem: A Forum of Negro Life. Vol. 1, no. 1: November 1928. Wallace Thurman, ed., and Aaron Douglas, Art Editor.
On orange paper, the word “Harlem” sits on two apartment building pillars, each topped with a black head—one a woman, one a man. on the outer edge of the buildings is a pattern of foliage, and between the heads is a symmetrical spread of angled buildings. Douglas’s A and D are in the front doors of the buildings. Another illustration appears on page 8 for Langston Hughes’s story “Luani of the Jungles,” in which a woman and a man kiss passionately in the midst of a dense palm forest, overseen by a threatening head in the corner.
Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. New York, National Urban League. Several months, 1925-1927.
- October 1925: Mulatto. A light-skinned woman with long dark hair stands peacefully against a white background.
- December 1925: A man with a sharply jutting jaw and lips looks toward a distant ancient city.
- February 1926: A dramatic illustration of work in a forge.
- June 1926: In pink, blue, and red, a man looks over his shoulder to a city and a sunrise.
- August 1926: An abstract blue illustration.
- October 1926: Accompanied by “Feet o’ Jesus” by Langston Hughes, a man with two arms raised to the sky. More of this collaboration is printed in this issue under “Two Artists.” Later printed in Opportunity Art Folio.
- May 1927: “A drawing from the Exposition de la Croisière Noire booklet, reproduced for Opportunity by Aaron Douglas.” A woman with hair coiled far behind her head.
- July 1927: A wide-format agricultural scene is printed in the center of the cover.