Can you name 5 women artists? It turns out, most people can’t. This simple question calls attention to the inequity women artists face, inspires conversation, and brings awareness to a larger audience. As a part of the #5WomenArtists initiative through the National Museum of Women in the Arts and in celebration of Women’s History Month, we will be highlighting women artists in the Cummer Collection. Museum founder Ninah Cummer was a supporter of women artists. Each of the artists we are highlighting this month will be from the original 60 pieces of artwork donated by Ninah Cummer, that are the foundation of our collection. To learn more about women artists, follow the National Museum of Women in the Arts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or follow #5WomenArtists. This post is the fourth of five that will be published this month as part of our #5WomenArtists series.
Born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, Augusta Savage (1892 – 1962) is considered one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century, and the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Full of hope and ambition, she moved to New York in 1921 and was accepted at the Pratt Institute and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Her talent earned her many scholarships but unfortunately some of them fell through: in 1923 she received a grant from the French government to study at the château of Fontainebleau, but when her racial identity was discovered the offer was withdrawn; in 1926 the Italian-American Society awarded Savage a scholarship to study in Rome, but she was unable to raise money for expenses abroad. Savage finally went to Paris in 1929, supported by the Julius Rosenwald Fund. During her two years in the French capital, she exhibited her work — black female nudes, portraits, and expressionistic pieces in bronze and plaster — at important venues such as the Salon d’Automne and the Colonial Exhibition of 1931.
Back in New York, she opened the Savage School of Arts and Crafts in Harlem. She soon became a central figure in what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance, a movement in which African American literature, art, and music flourished, and political debates were encouraged. Savage’s efforts to raise the status of African American art culminated in the opening of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937, a Works Progress Administration-funded initiative (one of the many launched by President Franklin Roosevelt after the Great Depression). Throughout her career, she supported and mentored many young artists who later became nationally recognized, including Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, William Artis, and Gwendolyn Knight.
One of her most important works was The Harp. The nearly 16-foot plaster sculpture celebrated James Weldon Johnson’s poem, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. It was exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where Savage was the only African American, and one of just four women to receive a commission for the event. Sadly, the funds she received for her commission did not cover the costs of casting the sculpture in bronze and the plaster sculpture was destroyed at the end of the World’s Fair. The artist was able, however, to cast a few pieces in bronze. One of those is The Diving Boy, which became a prominent feature in Mrs. Cummer’s Gardens. Originally placed at one end of a reflecting pond in Mrs. Cummer’s Italian Garden, the sculpture — now housed in the galleries — is typical of the artist’s interest in combining realistic details with moving expressiveness.
Although Augusta Savage retired from active public and artistic life in the mid-1940s, interest in her work is stronger than ever. Her sculptures are housed in prestigious collections across the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Seattle Art Museum.