This week's Artists of Color Spotlight is on Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage. She has a remarkable story, and absolutely stunning work. I hope you enjoy reading about her!
Augusta Savage (b. 1892) was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and was one of 14 children. She began sculpting clay figures as a child, but her father, a minister, disapproved of her artistic pursuits, believing them to be sinful. "My father licked me four or five times a week," Savage later wrote, "and almost whipped all the art out of me." Her high school principal encouraged her, however, and allowed her to teach her first sculpting class, which would inspire a lifelong love of teaching for Savage. In 1919, she won her first art prize at the Palm Beach County Fair, which motivated her to pursue her art education in New York City. She was admitted on scholarship to Cooper Union in 1921, ahead of 142 male applicants to the school. There she studied under George Brewster, and completed her 4-year degree in 3 years.
After finishing her studies, Savage worked at a Manhattan steam laundry to support herself and her family, who had moved into her small studio apartment from Florida after the family home had been destroyed in a hurricane. In 1923, Savage applied for a summer art program sponsored by the French government, and though she was more than qualified, she was rejected by the international judging committee solely because she was black. Savage was deeply upset by this and questioned the committee, beginning the first of many public fights for equal rights in her life. Her only advocate on the committee, sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil, invited her to study with him instead.
By this time, the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak, and Savage began to earn a reputation as a portrait sculptor, receiving such commissions as a bust of W.E.B. Du Bois for the Harlem Library, and a bust of Marcus Garvey. Savage was one of the first artists to beautifully capture black physiognomy in sculpture without resorting to stereotypes or caricature. Her best known work of the 1920s was Gamin, a bust portrait of her nephew, for which she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris in 1929. The fellowship only covered her studies, not her travel or living expenses, but with the help of fundraising parties held across Harlem and Greenwich Village, and from African-American women's groups, Savage was able to raise enough funds to study abroad. In Paris, she studied with Felix Benneteux-Degrois and Charles Despiau at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she had two works accepted in the Salon d'Automne, and exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris. She won a second Rosenwald fellowship, and a Carnegie Foundation grant for another 8 months of travel across Europe to research sculpture in cathedrals and museums.
Savage returned to the US during the Great Depression. Art sales had all but stopped, but she pushed on, becoming the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1934. She started her own studio in a basement in Harlem, and opened it to anyone with a desire to paint, draw, or sculpt. Her many students included future artists and well-known figures such as Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Kenneth B. Clark, and Gwendolyn Knight.
In 1939, Savage was commissioned by the New York World's Fair. She created a 16-foot tall plaster sculpture titled Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as The Harp), inspired by the song by James Weldon and J. Rosamund Johnson. It was the most popular and most photographed work at the fair, and many postcards and small metal souvenir copies of it were sold. Sadly, Savage did not have the funds to have it cast in bronze or put into storage, so like all other temporary installations, her masterpiece was destroyed after the fair closed.
Savage opened two galleries, whose exhibitions were well-attended and reviewed, but sales were hard to come by, so she was forced to close down. Depressed by her financial struggles and inability to restart her art career, Savage moved to a farmhouse in Saugerties, New York in the 1940s. There she remained until the end of her life, teaching art to local children, and writing children's stories that she never published. She died after a long battle with cancer on March 26, 1962 in New York City.
"I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting,
but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess,
then my monument will be in their work."
- Augusta Savage, 1935.