Hale Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence Offer Insights About African and African American Art in 1955 Letters to a College Student


From left, Artists Hale Woodruff and Jacob Lawrence.

 

GATHERING RESEARCH FOR HER THESIS, a white North Carolina college student wrote to African American artists Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) more than six decades ago. She sought Lawrence’s view on the influence of Negro artists on American painting and, from Woodruff, insights about Western recognition of African art. Both artists responded to her with thoughtful letters penned in 1955.

In his one-page correspondence, Lawrence apologizes for his delayed reply and states that while there are more “Negroes” painting than ever before in America, it is too early to ascertain their influence on the national culture. If Negro American painters do have any influence, he surmises, it is the same as American painters who happen to be Jewish, for example, or of Dutch or Greek origin.

Woodruff devoted six pages to his response and drew a series of illustrations of African objects and motifs on the final page. Writing on ruled paper, he explains, “I’m not waiting to have this typed so please excuse the paper and long hand.”

French painter Georges Braque and Spanish Painter Pablo Picasso, “were among the first artists to recognize African art as ‘art,’ although Leo Frobenius the German anthropologist, was aware of this quality before these artists,” Woodruff writes. “These cubists were struck by the bold yet controlled form (his emphasis) of African sculpture. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is definitely influenced by the African mask.”

“Cubists were struck by the bold yet controlled form of African sculpture. Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is definitely influenced by the African mask.” — Hale Woodruff

THE LAWRENCE AND WOODRUFF LETTERS are being offered in the March 28 Autographs Sale at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. The documents were consigned by Esther Krasny, who attended the Woman’s College in Greensboro, N.C., more than 60 years ago. Swann confirmed to Culture Type that the woman to whom the letters are addressed is also the party offering them for sale.

The Woodruff lot includes two additional letters from art historians Edward N. Wilson Jr., and Thomas Munro. Wilson was an African American sculptor and scholar who was appointed chairman of the department of art and art history at the State University of New York, Binghamton in 1964. An art history professor at (Case) Western Reserve University, Munro, who was white, served as curator of education at Cleveland Museum of Art for more than three decades (1931–67).

Krasny was a student at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, N.C., when she reached out to the artists and scholars in 1955. The college was established in 1891 by the North Carolina General Assembly as the State Normal and Industrial School for White Girls. It was the state’s the first public institution to provide higher education for women. After several name changes, the school became the North Carolina College for Women in 1919, and then the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in 1931 (the name when Krasny attended). Later, as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, it became coeducational in 1963.

 


Lot 250: Jacob Lawrence typewritten letter to Miss Krasny, 1955. | Estimate $400-$600, Image: Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

 

Written 63 years ago, both the Woodruff and Lawrence letters are addressed to “Miss Krasny.” Lawrence’s letter includes his return address at 385 Decatur Street in Brooklyn. This address is documented elsewhere. Correspondence with Langston Hughes featured in the recent book “Selected Letter of Langston Hughes,” for example, includes the same street address for Lawrence in a 1947 letter.

DATED NOV. 4, 1955, Lawrence’s letter to Krasny features his “autograph” in the closing, which tracks with his signature as it appears on his many limited edition prints. At the time of the correspondence, he was working on his Struggle series, a suite of paintings about the history of the United States and the American people. Lawrence spent September through November of that year on a Yaddo Foundation fellowship in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., working on the Struggle paintings.

In the typewritten letter, Lawrence wrote:

    “…[A]lthough there are more Negroes painting today than ever before in America, (this, by the way, is not only true of the Negro. It is also a fact that there are more people painting in America today) It is much too early for those of us who may have a particular interest in art trends and influences to tell exactly what contributions and influences any one particular racial or geographycal [sic] group may be exerting on our national cultural [sic]. That if the Negro painter is exerting any influence on American painting today it is the same way as the American painters Ben Shahn and Jack Levine, who happen to be Jewish, or Wilhelm DeKoenig [sic] and Theodoras [sic] Stamos, who happen to be of Dutch and Greek origin respectively. These artists are American; and as such influence the society in which they live as American painters, not as Jewish, Dutch or Greek painters. So it is with the painter who happens to be of Negro origin. …[T]he extent to which the artist influences h[i]s society and the extent to which that society influences the artist, is determined by his (the artist) social, economic and geographycal background rather than his racial origin.”

“These artists are American; and as such influence the society in which they live as American painters, not as Jewish, Dutch or Greek painters. So it is with the painter who happens to be of Negro origin. …[T]he extent to which the artist influences h[i]s society and the extent to which that society influences the artist, is determined by his (the artist) social, economic and geographycal background rather than his racial origin.” — Jacob Lawrence

AFTER HIS STORIED TENURE at Atlanta University, Woodruff moved to New York where he was on the faculty at New York University from 1946 to 1968. He was at NYU when he penned the letter to Krasny.

Woodruff’s lengthy response briefly cites the African influence on furniture and architecture, invoking Le Corbusier, but primarily focuses on art. He mentions a number of artists including Hans Arp, Paul Klee, Wilfredo Lam, Henry Moore, and Amedeo Modigliani.

On the third page of his letter, Woodruff emphasizes the growing regard for African art.

“50 years ago African art was at best a ‘curio.’ Today it ranks with the best classical art of any and all periods in history. This is because it is now seen with a greater understanding of its meaning and purpose,” he writes. “A wider insight into all art forms has revealed the true quality in African art. It’s influence has opened up new ways of seeing and creating and understanding. It now belongs to the tradition of all great expression in art.”

Woodruff concludes by wishing Krasny “good luck” on her papers and advising her not to quote him verbatim. He writes: “Reinterpret my statements according to your own thinking.” CT

 

TOP IMAGES: From left, Hale Woodruff in 1942 at Atlanta University, where he founded the annual Exhibition for African American artists. | Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection; Jacob Lawrence in 1957. | Alfredo Valente, photographer. Alfredo Valente papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

BOOKSHELF
A catalog documenting the exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” is expected this year. “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” was published to coincide the “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” the Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by Lawrence’s seminal series. Also consider, “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence” and the complete Jacob Lawrence catalog raisonne, published in 2000. “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem,” is a great introduction to Lawrence for children. “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College” documents the artist’s six monumental murals depicting the African American experience from slavery to freedom and “Hale Woodruff: 50 years of His Art” was published to complement his 1979 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. “Hale Woodruff, Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, and the Academy” explores the work and influence of the two artists who met in Paris before reuniting at Atlanta University where they were dedicated professors and mentors.

 


Lot 260: Hale Woodruff handwritten letter to Miss Krasny, 1955 (page 5/6). | Estimate $800-$1,200, Image: Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

 


Hale Woodruff letter (page 6/6). | Image: Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries

 

VIEW FULL LETTER from Hale Woodruff

 

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