Winold Reiss & the Harlem Renaissance

How the German-born artist challenged racial stereotypes through portraiture

Winold Reiss (1919) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Artist Winold Reiss was born on September 16, 1886, in Karlsruhe, Germany. A gifted portraitist, Reiss challenged the convention of racial stereotyping by portraying African American, Native American, and Asian American subjects as dignified individuals. In 1924, Reiss was commissioned to make portraits of major figures of the Harlem Renaissance for a special issue of Survey Graphic, a magazine that focused on sociological and political issues.

Roland Hayes (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro was published on March 1, 1925, and became the most popular issue of Survey Graphic to date. On the cover was Reiss’s portrait of singer and composer, Roland Hayes.

Alain Leroy Locke (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Alain Locke, an influential writer and philosopher, served as guest editor for this issue of Survey Graphic. Later that year, Locke edited and expanded Harlem, creating an anthology of African American art, poetry, literature, and history entitled The New Negro (1925). Illustrated with portraits by Winold Reiss, the book became a founding document of the Harlem Renaissance.

In this portrait, Reiss depicts Locke in a contemplative mood. His serious expression and professional attire speak to the pride and dignity of the African American intellectual class.

Countee Cullen (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

"Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black and bid him sing!"

With these words, Countee Cullen described the ambiguous position of the Black artist in American society in the 1920s. Cullen would go on to become a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

To convey a sense of the poet’s introspection, Reiss portrays Cullen with his head tilted and gaze averted. In addition to celebrating Cullen’s literary accomplishments, the contemporary portrait also captures the progressive spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and its quest for a new social awakening.

Elise J. McDougald (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Elise J. McDougald was an assistant principal in Harlem and a leader in the women's movement. Her essay "The Double Task: The Struggle of Negro Women for Sex and Race Emancipation," was published in Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.

Reiss drew McDougald with sensitivity and respect, merely outlining her body in charcoal and directing the viewer's attention to her softly contoured face and haunting eyes. The portrait gains strength from its level of abstraction, with the sitter seeming to emerge from the negative space surrounding her.

Paul Robeson (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Reiss made this portrait of the actor Paul Robeson when he appeared as the title character in the play Emperor Jones. Reiss's portrait hints at the ruthlessness and smirking condescension of Emperor Jones, who goes mad on a Caribbean island.

Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson was the editor of Opportunity: Journal of Negro Life. In this capacity Johnson became known as the "entrepreneur of the Harlem Renaissance," and provided a publishing outlet for such talented Black writers as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston.

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Having received a PhD from Harvard in 1895, W. E. B. Du Bois focused his intellectual energies on the subject of race in America. The author of more than twenty books, he was also an activist and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Du Bois approved of Reiss's work, and a portrait of him by the artist appeared in The New Negro: An Interpretation in 1925.

Langston Hughes (c. 1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Langston Hughes was a trailblazer for Black writers, and successfully claimed his place in mainstream American literature. Deeply committed to African American history, Hughes explored the subject within the framework of modernist poetry.

This portrait of Langston Hughes embodies the way Reiss uniquely synthesizes realistic portraits of African Americans with imaginative design. The stylized background of this portrait conveys a dynamic impression of Black urban experience, while the foreground features Reiss's sympathetically drawn portrait of Hughes as the man who translated that experience into poetry.

Robert Russa Moton (1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Winold Reiss's stylized portraits of Harlem figures, such as the educator and author Robert Russa Moton, provided the kind of dignified presentation that avant-garde African American intellectuals wanted to see in contemporary art. His work would eventually shape the wider design aesthetic of the Harlem Renaissance, with adaptations of his style appearing on the covers of small literary magazines.

Mary McLeod Bethune (c. 1925) by Winold ReissSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune became one of America's most influential champions of racial and gender equality. Reiss believed that by documenting the variety and diversity of humanity, he could also promote harmony among peoples. His work resonates with the idealistic notion that art can transform the world by showing the beauty and dignity that exists in all people.

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