Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Artists during the Twentieth Century

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Eldzier Cortor, Southern Gate (1942–1943).

Eldzier Cortor, Southern Gate (1942–1943). Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. / Art Resource, NY

The black female nude was rarely a favored subject of African American artists working during the early twentieth century. This aversion was in reaction to a dominant European American culture that thrived on negative representations of black women in the popular print media and entertainments like blackface minstrelsy—a culture that saw ideal beauty located only in the bodies of white women. Such representations, coupled with the historical legacy of the sexual exploitation of black women under slavery, prompted many African American artists who were concerned with racial uplift or who were associated with the New Negro movement to create depictions of black women who were morally dignified, which also meant fully clothed. Much of the work of Eldzier Cortor, refutes these notions by visualizing the unclothed, black female body as both beautiful and monumental, standing triumphant on the ruins of history. In Southern Gate, for example, we see a nude woman standing before a crumbling post that is topped by a Grecian urn. While dark clouds occlude the sky behind her, a warm light pours across the left side of her body, she wears flowers in her hair, and a small bird perches on her shoulder as if to signal a new day is dawning.

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