Aspiration (1936), by the Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), is on view in Gallery 10 at the de Young. The painting is one of two extant paintings from a four-part mural cycle that Douglas created for the Hall of Negro Life building at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. The work touches on many of the themes that characterized the creative expressions of the Harlem Renaissance, including African Americans’ shared heritage and cultural identity, the progression from slavery to freedom, and the Great Migration, during which more than a million black Southerners left their agrarian environs for the industrial North.
Various symbols in Aspiration suggest these themes. The five-pointed stars symbolize Texas—the Lone Star State—but also recall the North Star that guided escaped slaves to freedom before the Civil War. The seated figure holding a book, who evokes Egyptian art, and the silhouettes of pyramids (formed by spaces between points of the stars) represent the cultural contributions of ancient African civilizations. The two standing figures, African American men of the 20th century, hold attributes of education and gaze upward to a city on a hill, whose futuristic skyscrapers symbolize human progress and aspiration.
Aspiration was acquired for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco through a unique fund-raising effort. While the painting was on view at the Legion of Honor as a part of the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance (1998), a cash donation box was placed outside the gallery to encourage contributions for this painting in particular. The result was extraordinary outpouring of community support, which, in addition to major gifts, enabled the Museums to acquire the painting.
Celebrate Black History Month this February at the de Young and learn more about Aspiration.