A beacon of hope

Aaron Douglas's Aspiration

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936, oil on canvas, 152.4 x 152.4 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), a Seeing America video. Speakers: Timothy Anglin Burgard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Beth Harris

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Douglas, Aspiration

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Key points

  • In 1936, Texas celebrated its independence from Mexico with the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Like many world’s fairs, it included pavilions and exhibitions by different groups, including the Hall of Negro Life, which traced Texas history from an African American perspective. The building was located on the periphery of the fairgrounds and demolished immediately after the end of the fair.
  • Aaron Douglas was commissioned to paint four murals for the Hall of Negro Life, but only two survive today. His work reflected the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance, influenced deeply by Alain Locke, who argued that African Americans should embrace and celebrate their African heritage.
  • The artist combined elements of modern abstraction and traditions of Egyptian and European art to chronicle history from an African American perspective. While Douglas modeled his figures on Egyptian forms and Michelangelo’s Libyan Sibyl from the Sistine Chapel, he also used simple geometric shapes to suggest the Middle Passage, the North Star (which doubled as the Texas Lone Star), and jazz music.
  • Using his characteristic silhouetted style, Aaron Douglas suggests specific references for the three figures on the podium, but leaves them open to more universal interpretations. For example, the seated woman can be understood both as both Mother Egypt and Sojourner Truth. The figures all represented the educated “New Negro,” speaking to the achievements and aspirations of African Americans in the early 20th century.

Go deeper

See this object at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

View Into Bondage, the other mural panel that survives from this project

Watch a promotional film about the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition

Learn about the Hall of Negro Life and Douglas’s murals

Read the foreword to Alain Locke’s The New Negro: An Interpretation

Learn more about Sojourner Truth and read some of her speeches

Who was Benjamin Banneker?

Read about the life and career (beyond peanuts) of George Washington Carver

Watch a short video on Jesse Owens and the 1936 Olympics

Learn about the career and political activism of Paul Robeson

Read about the boxer Joe Lewis

Find out about the importance of the North Star to the Underground Railroad

More to think about

If you were to paint the two missing panels, what subjects would you include?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.