Art

A Rare Encounter with an Aaron Douglas Painting that References Slavery’s Past

Aaron Douglas, "Let My People Go" (1935-39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aaron Douglas, “Let My People Go” (1935–39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Lavender and gold silhouettes of soldiers on horseback, waves, and a kneeling figure overlap on the flat plane of Aaron Douglas’s “Let My People Go” (1935–39). The Harlem Renaissance artist’s interpretation of the biblical Moses’s plea to the Pharaoh to free his people mixes modernism with African art history through its two-dimensional perspective, angular shapes, and unexpected colors. The painting was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014, and recently went on view in the museum’s modern and contemporary galleries.

Aaron Douglas, "Let My People Go" (1935-39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aaron Douglas, “Let My People Go” (1935–39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (click to enlarge)

Randy Kennedy noted in the New York Times that Douglas “is an almost Vermeer-like figure, whose shadowy, graphically powerful depictions of African-American themes appear so rarely on the market that when canvases surface, curators pounce.” At the same time that the Met acquired “Let My People Go,” the National Gallery of Art purchased “The Judgment Day” (1939) by Douglas from the same private collector. (The National Gallery of Art painting is also now on view.) Both paintings are part of a series of eight, created after Douglas’s designs for James Weldon Johnson’s book God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927).

The Kansas-born Douglas was a major Harlem Renaissance artist and illustrator during his time in New York, and the Met has prominently installed “Let My People Go” right at the entrance of the galleries. The muted colors encourage a closer look at the overlaying shapes that poise the pharaoh’s soldiers against the wrath of nature unbridled, with waves crashing and lightning cracking in the sky, a reminder of the freedom Moses, portrayed as a black man caught in a beam of light, demands. Like his mural work, which can be seen at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan and at Fisk University in Nashville, where Douglas was a professor for over two decades, the energy of the scene reflects both the Jazz Age and the artist’s appreciation for the visual culture of Africa, particularly the flat perspectives of Egyptian art.

“Let My People Go” was recently featured on MetCollects, the museum’s series on new acquisitions. David C. Driskell, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park, says in the Met video, embedded below, that Douglas “was doing something which was twofold: he was looking at biblical history, but he was also looking at the social plight that African Americans were under the rule of the pharaoh, so to speak. Stylistically he was able to express his own notion of modernism, simplifying the forms, so even a child would understand what he was portraying.” In his unique melding of international influences, Douglas made a powerful statement referencing slavery’s past, while looking forward from the 1930s to freedoms still in need of release.

Aaron Douglas, "Let My People Go" (1935-39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aaron Douglas, “Let My People Go” (1935–39), oil on masonite, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail of Aaron Douglas, "Let My People Go" (1935-39), oil on masonite
Detail of Aaron Douglas, “Let My People Go” (1935–39), oil on masonite
Detail of Aaron Douglas, "Let My People Go" (1935-39), oil on masonite
Detail of Aaron Douglas, “Let My People Go” (1935–39), oil on masonite

“Let My People Go” by Aaron Douglas is on view in the modern and contemporary art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Learn more about the painting at MetCollects.

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