Augusta Savage (1892-1962), LENORE, 1935

06-03-2014 Back

At the age of 15, Augusta married John T. Moore who died shortly after the birth of her first and only child, Irene Connie Moore. A few years later she married the carpenter, James Savage, keeping his name despite their divorce in the early 1920s. In 1919, while traveling in West Palm Beach, Augusta met a local potter and managed to convince him to give her 25 pounds of clay. Using her new resources she modeled a number of works including Virgin Mary and Percheron Stallion. So impressive was this work that she was hired to teach a modeling class at the local public school.

            Augusta exhibited her sculptures at the West Palm Beach County Fair at the request of George Graham Currie, the fair’s superintendent, the success of which inspired her to move to Jacksonville, where she hoped to make a living on commissions for portrait busts of the affluent African American population. Ultimately this venture yielded little success. In 1921 Savage arrived in New York with $4.60 and a letter of introduction from Currie to Solon Borglum, the founder of the School of American Sculpture. Because of tuition concerns, Borglum suggested that she apply to the Cooper Union where, only a day after showing her work, was placed ahead of 142 other female applicants who had been waitlisted.

            While at Cooper Union, Savage studied under George Brewster and attended night school in order to earn her high school diploma. She rapidly progressed in the four-year program, completing her studies in just three years.  Following her graduation, Savage was awarded a scholarship for American artists to study in France. When two girls from Alabama, who had also received the scholarship, complained about having to travel and study in the same room as a ‘colored girl,’ the committee revoked Savage’s funds claiming that they had not made arrangements for ‘colored students.’ This event spurred a period of intense political activism on Savage’s part that reflected both in her aesthetic and her involvement in the African American community.

            In 1925, through the efforts of civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and the sponsorship of Irene Di Robilant, the manager of the Italian-American Society in New York, Savage received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. A series of financial burdens prohibited her from taking advantage of the scholarship. 

            Savage nevertheless managed to gain much public attention in the United States. In 1926 twenty-two of her works were exhibited at the Baltimore Federation of Parent Teacher clubs at Douglass High School. This was the first exhibition to feature a collection of ‘Negro’ art at Douglass. Among the works shown were her Green Apples (1928) and busts of Theodore Upshure (c. 1930) and Major Bowes (c. 1930).

            In 1929, Savage received her first Julius Rosenwald fellowship for study in Paris, largely due to the favorable impression made on the committee by a sculpture she modeled of her nephew, Ellis Ford, entitled Gamin (c. 1930). She departed for Paris in 1930, where she studied under Felix Beauneteaux and Charles Despiau. In 1931 she was awarded a second Rosenwald Fellowship, extending her Paris sojourn until 1932.

            Savage returned to the United States in 1932, exhibiting Gamin, Envy, Woman of Martinique and Head of a Laughing Boy at the Salon of the American Art-Anderson Galleries for the 10th Annual Exhibition of the Salons of America. Simultaneously she rallied a group of young intellectual African Americans—‘the Vanguard’—and established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, where she resumed teaching former and new students including Norman Lewis, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Edgar Evans, Francisco Lord, Florence and Anna McLean and William Artis. By night, her studio was home to numerous salon-style discussions and debates on race, gender and politics.

            In order to continue the expansion of her studio, she combined her efforts with the adult education project at the State University of New York and became an official Harlem branch of the program. By 1935 there were over 66 students enrolled in her classes, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and eventually the Federal Art Program (FAP). In 1936 she became the assistant supervisor on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) where she successfully fought to increase the number of African American artists employed by the FAP. A year later she was appointed director of the newly opened Harlem Community Center, which would become the model to which all other community art centers would aspire.

            Savage’s biggest honor came in 1938 when she received a commission to construct a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. She was one of only four women, and the only African American woman, selected by the board of design. Savage took a leave of absence from the Art Center to complete her sixteen foot painted plaster sculpture entitled The Harp. Inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the commission featured a choir of African Americans cradled by the hand of the creator and forming the shape of a harp. At the head of the group, a young man kneeled holding a banner inscribed with the title of the poem. Johnson had been a frequent visitor to Savage’s studio and his poem had gained the status of ‘negro national anthem.’ The sculpture was proudly displayed next to the Contemporary Art Museum and its message certainly had a resounding impact on visitors and locals alike. Unfortunately no casts were produced and The Harp was destroyed upon the fair’s closing. All that now remain are a few maquette souvenir versions that were sold to fairgoers.

Savage moved to Saugerties, NY in 1945 and reestablished a relationship with her daughter. Her artistic production slowed significantly and she began making fewer and fewer visits to New York City. Despite her rapid rise to success in the 1920s and her avid political involvement during the 1930s and 1940s, Savage lived out the final years of her life in relative obscurity, dying in 1962 after a battle with cancer.

            By 1934 Savage had become one of the most influential artists in Harlem. She was not only talented; she was a strong activist and a skilled teacher. Her sculpture of Harlem Girl (Lenore) of 1935 exemplifies the height of her career in terms of both style and theme. A young African American girl stoically gazes out at the viewer, her hair and dress decorated with ribbons; she possesses no distinct expression and yet she is deeply engaged with her audience.  Her name is Lenore, yet she could just as easily be any other adolescent experiencing life in 1930s Harlem. While Savage set out to become a portraitist to influential African Americans, she ultimately captured the experience of everyday life in creating semi-anonymous figures that she encountered daily. She was among the earliest African-American artists to consistently employ a distinctly African American character in her work and, with her students and contemporaries, sustained a movement of Black cultural development that began during the early 1920s and continued throughout the 20th century.


Kaylee Alexander, May 2014

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Selected References:

• Grutzner, Charles Jr. “Building the Fair.” Brooklyn Eagle, March 27, 1939, 4.

• King-Hammond, Leslie. “Quest for Freedom, Identity and Beauty: New Negro Artists Prophet, Savage and Burke.” In 3 Generations of African American Women Sculptors: A Study in Paradox. exh. cat., Philadelphia: The Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum, 1996, 26 – 37.

• New York Public Library. Augusta Savage and The Art Schools of Harlem. exh. cat., text by Howard Dodson and others. New York, 1988.