11+ Famous Black Artists In Art History (2022 Updated) from Portraitflip.com

“I am not a black artist, I am an artist” — Jean-Michel Basquiat 

Isay “famous black artists” but were they?

Black artists or just artists have been unrecognized and undervalued for years — if not for decades or centuries.

Just like the Women painters, they have been swept under the radar for far too long…

This blog is not just about introducing famous black painters to the world.

It’s to let you know that master painters like Salvador DalíWillem de Kooning, and Auguste Rodin had rivals like them.

History failed to educate us that these famous black American artists too were as prominent as the “traditional” artist canons.

This is a much-awaited moment to celebrate them, give them a platform, and insert them into art history.

These significant black artists deserve a long-overdue spotlight on them and their work.

And I — am not holding back. 

Let me introduce to you the most famous black artists in art history in the hopes that you never forget them.

1. Prince Demah – Portraitist

The only struggle Prince Demah went through was to make a name as an artist in a very active slavery environment.

He was the first “naïve” artist of his kind who didn’t have knowledge of art except for what he learned whilst looking at the famous white artists at that time.

In November of 1769, Henry Barnes purchased Prince Demah with the goal of “improving his genius in painting.”

The Barneses didn’t just want Demah to receive training but also to practice painting as they wanted to recoup the money they had invested in him.

Demah tried to learn from Copley, but Copley himself was trying to establish painting as a profession and promote his exclusivity.

He was nothing but a racial incursion to Copley.

Demah mastered Copley’s basic bust formula since he partly learned by copying Copley.

Prince accompanied Henry Barnes on a trip to London in 1771, where portraitist and historical painter Robert Edge Pine, was giving him lessons on painting.

The trip to London was short but it exposed Prince to new experiences and attitudes.

Upon return, Henry was scared that Prince would seek his freedom too, and hence they would not “let (Prince) converse with any of his own color”.

Prince then returned to Boston in 1771, where he set up in the Watch-makers shop where people paid for the experience of watching a black man paint.

He was considered a “freak” and exhibited to the public because of the color of his skin and the nature of his paintings

The freedom to look at a sitter was one of the problems an African American painter faced.

Portrait painting being sexualized during the 18th century may be the reason why only one portrait survived by a paying sitter was a male.

The portrait of William Duguid, a young Scottish textile merchant in 1772.

After the Barneses fled Boston, Prince — now a free man enlisted in the Massachusetts militia in April 1777.

It is where he likely fell ill and died as a “free negro” in March 1778. 

He was the only artist who worked as a slave in Colonial America and whose paintings have survived.

Who was prince Demah Barnes?

Which portraits did Prince Demah Barnes Paint?

Which mediums were preferred by Prince Demah Barnes?

2. Joshua Johnson – Portraitist 

Joshua Johnson was one of the earliest documented famous black artists.

While very little is known about him, even his last name is uncertain.

Joshua Johnson or Johnston was the first African American artist to work professionally in the United States.

He was born in 1763, as a son of a black slave woman and a white man. He was owned by William Wheeler.

His father, George Johnson, purchased him for £25 from Mr. William Wheeler, Sr.

Joshua was guaranteed his freedom by George if he finished his apprenticeship as a blacksmith or reached the age of 21, whichever came first.

He earned his manumission after completing the apprenticeship.

Working as a blacksmith, he learned how to make canvases and other painting supplies.

Baltimore had a relatively open-minded attitude towards free black people, which meant that it was the perfect place for him to be a limner.

He advertised himself as a self-taught artist who faced insuperable obstacles which was an obvious veil reference to his color.

Johnson has been linked with Charles Willson Peale and Charles Peale Polk due to their similar styles, some oral history, and some historical events.

Most of his work depicted only white and affluent residents of Baltimore, except two.

What did Joshua Johnson do?

What was Joshua Johnson’s best-known painting?

Who was the first black artist?

3. Robert Seldon Duncanson – Landscapist

a landscape painting called "Landscape with Rainbow" made by one of the famous black artists, Robert Seldon Duncanson.

Duncanson’s works have survived but his name faded into obscurity unlike his white rivals William Sonntag and Worthington Whitteredge.

He was born into a family of free African American traders, but fine painting was his passion, which he taught himself.

Due to the encouragement of white abolitionists who backed Black artists, his career received a big boost in 1848.

Some have stated that the support wasn’t simply for their political goals, but also to amass social capital.

This ignited his passion for landscape painting and the introduction to the Hudson River School Style.

He was a part of the first real cluster of an all-African-American artist community, in 1850.

Upon his return from Europe, Duncanson supported the anti-slavery movement by donating his paintings to help raise funds.

This trip resulted in him gaining fame in both the U.S. and Europe and paved a path for future generations of Black artists.

His paintings were veiled analogies for racial concerns and subliminal messages.

Between the 1860s and 1870s, at the height of his renown and glory, he developed dementia.

He believed that he was possessed by the spirit of a deceased artist, but experts eventually concluded that it was caused by excessive lead exposure.

He died two years later after suffering from a stroke.

They even weighed how he dealt with incredible stress as a successful African-American artist in a white-dominated world.

Duncanson clearly envisioned and lived a life without bounds, a life beyond the slave or laborer roles that African-Americans had been placed into.

Was Robert S. Duncanson black?

Who influenced Robert Seldon Duncanson?

What does the painting of a landscape with a rainbow depict?

4. Edmonia Lewis – Sculptor

a sculpture called "Old Arrow Marker" made by one of the famous black artists, Edmonia Lewis.

Born to an African American father and a Native-American mother in 1844, Mary Edmonia Lewis was orphaned at a young age.

Raised by her mother’s nomadic family she later went on to enroll in Oberlin College in Ohio, with her brother’s support.

Her education ended abruptly in 1863 when she was accused of poisoning her fellow white classmates.

She was beaten by a white mob — battered and bruised, Lewis yet went to court and won an acquittal.

Her move to Boston with her brother’s help was where she met and studied portrait sculpture under Edward Brackett.

With her minimum knowledge, she started sculpting portraits of well-known abolitionists.

The funding for her move to Europe came through when she created a bust of Civil War Colonel Robert Shaw and sold enough copies.

She moved to Europe and eventually settled in Rome where she got acquainted with fellow American sculptor Harriet Hosmer.

The journey of Edmonia to become one of the most famous back artists started here.

Roman artists would employ Italian stone carvers to turn their sculpture design into a finished marble sculpture.

Due to limited financial resources, Edmonia chiseled most of her figures.

The bust sculpture of Anna Quincy Waterston depicts Edmonia’s African-American and Native-American heritage; it was her specialty. 

She also sculpted several mythological figurines out of sheer fanciness.

Experts then debated that her “fancy pieces” in reality did depict the racism and the courage it took for black people to overcome it.

In one of her sculptures, Lewis depicted Egypt as black Africa and Hagar as the symbol of courage and the bearer of a long line of African kings 

After a life of success, and plenty of exhibitions, the remainder of Edmonia’s life is obscure and conflicting.

So is the date and place of her death.

Was Edmonia Lewis an abolitionist?

Why is Edmonia Lewis important to America?

What movement did Edmonia Lewis contribute to?

5. Henry Ossawa Tanner – Biblical Artist

a painting called "The Banjo Lessons" made by one of the famous black artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born on June 21, 1859, into a slavery-free family.

Just because he belonged to a cultured, educated, and landowning family they were not free of racial oppression.

Even though his father wanted him to become a priest, a painter at Fairmount Park inspired Tanner to become an artist.

Tanner was about to step into history as one of the famous black artists, in 1876.

It is then that he realized that America has a scarcity of marine and animal painters.

He enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts in 1878, where he befriended Thomas Eakins, who was his teacher.

His fellow white students weren’t too welcoming of him.

In an apparent instance, his white classmates had tied him to an easel and left him in the middle of Broad Street. 

He did not fail to mention these incidents indirectly in his autobiography — calling them disagreeable incidents that made his heart sink.

In the 1880s he worked hard to establish himself as an artist in Philadelphia by supporting himself and later moved to Atlanta in 1888.

Joseph Crane Hartzell, a friend of Tanner’s father, organized an exhibition for him.

But to Henry’s dismay, not a single painting was sold. 

The Hartzells ended up buying his entire collection which was his ticket to Europe.

He enrolled in an esteemed art school and was very welcomed by his classmates but he returned to America under unforeseen circumstances.

During his return, he painted African-Americans in humbleness — which was “how they should be painted” according to him, and exemplified in “The Banjo Lessons.”

Henry eventually gained great commercial success after showcasing his paintings at the Salon. 

This launched his career as a biblical artist and he sometimes used his wife and son as subjects in some paintings.

Why he stopped painting African-Americans is still a mystery.

Choosing to live in France got him tagged as an expatriate, but that is where he felt that his race mattered less to other artists and critics.

He enjoyed his last decades as an acclaimed artist and even had his solo art exhibition in New York, in 1908.

With fresh paint still on his canvas, he died in 1937 in his studio still as a Negro Artist.

What was Henry Ossawa Tanner known for?

Is Henry Ossawa Tanner black?

Where did Henry Ossawa Tanner go to school and why did he leave PAFA?

6. William Edmondson – Sculptor

a sculpture called "Angel" made by one of the famous black artists, William Edmondson.

The importance of accurate context is most clearly presented in the study of folk art in America.

Black artists’ works enticed collectors due to their authenticity and exotic nature and had a positive effect on Black culture in American Society.

One such influence was brought about by William Edmondson. Born sometime in December 1874.

His sculptures showed the strength of surviving Black traditional religion and folk aesthetics. 

Edmondson had a very humble beginning as he was born to former slaves. 

After his father died he and his family shifted to Nashville.

He never attended school and spent most of his early adulthood working odd jobs.

From farm laborer to a janitor at the city’s all-white women’s hospital, where he spent 25 years.

After the great depression struck he was jobless and desperate for money he started working odd jobs again.

Until fate brought him one step closer to his love — working for a stonemason as an assistant.

He entered the world of sculpture at sixty years old after he received a message from God asking him to pick up his tools and carve them.

Edmondson is one of the naive sculptors who taught himself how to carve sculptures and tombstones which were delivered to him by wrecking company trucks.

He sold the tombstones to the members of the local congregation.

Cemetery in Nashville held significance because the Blacks would gather there where there had the freedom to express themselves while maintaining the identity 

And that the presence of Edmondson’s stones united them.

Edmondson barely incorporated details into his sculptures which characterized his work as abstract.

He started sculpting biblical figures, angels, animals, female nudes, and even popular figures like Eleanor Roosevelt.

While chiseling the rocks he would minimize the waste of the limestones as he considered them to be spiritual and less chiseling would bring more spirit to the sculptures.

He soon drew the attention of collectors in 1937 and he was the first black artist to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York

Edmondson was unmotivated by wealth and celebrity.

His brief furor that followed the MoMA show did not move him — which was the gossip that the media needed to cast him as ignorant and unsophisticated.

Edmondson consciously adopted the persona that was given to him.

Despite his international acclaim, this folk art is not as well-remembered as it should be.

Who is Edmondson?

What kind of phrases did William Edmondson use to describe his own work?

When and where was William Edmondson born?

7. Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller – Sculptor

a sculpture called "Ethiopia Rising" made by one of the famous black artists, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller was one of the famous Black artists who was well-known to focus on Afrocentric themes.

Dubbed “one of the most imaginatively creative Black artists of her generation” — she was the protege of Auguste Rodin.

She adopted a horror-based figural style and chose to illustrate events of racial injustice in her sculptures.

Her imagination was wild as it was fed by ghost stories and horror tales by her grandfather.

Warrick used her platform to emphasize the societal traumas of African Americans.

Meta Vaux was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 9, 1877, to a middle-class black family.

She was provided with activities that were fairly unusual for black kids.

Meta moved to Paris in 1899 to study sculpture, where she began creating her expressive and groundbreaking artwork.

After gaining enough knowledge and experience in the field she returned to Philadelphia in 1902.

Her success abroad still ostracized her in the white male-dominated art world in America.

But she elevated African-American history by being the first Black artist to receive a federal art commission.

In 1913, she created “Emancipation” which was commissioned to her to celebrate 50 years of freedom. 

And then she created her master and signature piece “Ethiopia Awakening” in 1921 for an exhibit in New York.

A piece that mirrored the Harlem Renaissance and illustrated a desire to dispel Africa’s negative connotation with slavery and ignorance.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Fuller’s sculptures took on a religious tone as she became involved in church activities.

Fuller then retired from her work for a brief period after which she was back to creating sculptures that paid tribute to the civil rights movement.

She died in 1968 as a radical African-American artist who left behind a legacy for all female black artists. 

Why is Meta Warrick Fuller important?

What is “Ethiopia Awakening?” Why is it important?

Why did Meta Warrick Fuller go to Paris?

8. Edwin Harleston – Portraitist

a portrait painting called "Landscape with Rainbow" by one of the famous black artists, Robert Seldon Duncanson.

Edwin Augustus Harleston was an artist, a civil rights leader, and a funeral businessman.

Despite his passion to paint, a series of events in his life led him to do everything but.

But Harleston only wanted to paint.

Recognized as one of the most famous black artists for his outstanding portrait work in the 1920s.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 14, 1882, he was one of eight children whose father owned funeral home.

Being an African-American still had its disadvantages in Charleston as Edwin wasn’t allowed at many of Charleston’s cultural sites.

After a brief study at the Avery Normal Institute and Atlanta University, he finally relocated to Boston.

He studied a seven-year course at the Boston Museum of Fine Art where he formed the foundation of his style.

He reluctantly returned to South Carolina to help his father in with the funeral business

During his return, he participated in the American Civil rights movement and eventually became the president of the newly formed Charleston branch.

He wrote plays, fought for the rightful place for black teachers to teach in public schools, and won.

But all Harleston wanted to do was paint only to realize that he had no time and had to earn a living.

He did paint portraits of his family, friends, and some influential people. Since he wanted to paint he needed a plan to earn his living by painting.

He married his long-term love interest, a photographer named Elize Forrest on September 15, 1920.

They settled in Charleston and shared a studio where they displayed his paintings and her photography. He often used Elise’s photographs as the basis of his paintings.

Yes, his work was well-received but he barely got any commissions until he exhibited his work in Harlem in 1923.

Harleston even worked with Aaron Douglas as his assistant to paint murals for a new library at Fisk University

Despite his artistic talent and distinguished schooling, he was still shunned by the city’s white art community.

He gained many awards and prizes for his work until the great depression hit and he had to go back to running his funeral business that was suffering.

He died as a loving and loyal son in 1931 as a result of his own devotion.

What did Edwin Harleston do?

Where did Edwin Harleston live?

How did Edwin Augustus Harleston die?

9. Horace Pippin – Artist

a painting called "The Park Bench" by one of the famous black artists, Horace Pippin.

Horace Pippin was one of the most famous self-taught black artists.

He was once eulogized by the New York Times as “the most important Negro artist” in American history.

His paintings had a range of scenes in them including landscapes, portraits, biblical subjects, and scenes inspired by his service in WWI.

Horace Pippin was born on February 22, 1888, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, to Harriet Pippin,

Before he went off to war he did a number of odd jobs like an iron molder, a hotel porter, and a furniture packer.

Pippin served in the war where he was shot by a sniper ultimately losing the use of his right arm.

As a child, Horace loved drawing, and the war, as he once declared “brought out all the art in him.” 

Horace settled in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and the accident prompted him to paint to rehabilitate his arm.

He would burn designs into wood panels with a red-hot poker and then paint in the delineated areas.

During most of the 1930s, Pippin remained relatively unknown even though his paintings were well-known among his neighbors and occasionally shown in local shops.

It was not until 1937 that this naïve artist managed to gain fame and attention for his work.

He’d developed into a powerful and unique artist capable of distilling his life’s experiences and memories into images of remarkable strength and poignancy.

Several of his paintings addressed significant themes of slavery and segregation in America — which he was famous for.

Pippin’s art finally achieved more prominence in the latter decade of his life, when he had three solo exhibits in 1940, 1941, and 1943.

Pippin was a keen observer of the world, and his paintings reflect both his personal ties to the subjects that affected him—such as peace and social justice—and his own experiences.

Despite his work being labeled as “naïve” at the time, and Pippin himself as callow, the truth is very different.

What is Horace Pippin famous for?

What was Horace Pippin’s art style?

How much is a Horace Pippin painting worth?

10. Alma Thomas – Abstract Artist

an abstract painting called "The Eclipse" by one of the famous black artists, Alma Thomas.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was one of the famous black artists and a teacher who lived and worked in Washington D.C.

She encountered many hurdles as a black female artist but this segregation and discrimination never showed up in her work.

Art was an independent spirit to her with much more to show than just race and gender.

Alma Thomas was the oldest of four daughters born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia.

To escape the racial violence in the south her family shifted to Washington in 1907. 

Despite its segregation, the nation’s capital offered African-Americans greater chances than any other place at that time.

She became the first graduate of Howard University of its newly formed art department in 1924.

Perhaps “the first African-American woman” to get a bachelor’s degree in art — or even the first American woman of any race.

For 35 years Alma inspired art students at Shaw Junior High School to recognize beauty in the ordinary.

In a segregated city like Washington, she provided exhibition opportunities and cultural enrichment to the Black youth.

Teaching did not stop her from pursuing her love for art.

These three and a half-decade of Alma’s life were anointed as her “fermenting period” by experts. 

She started associating with Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and other Color Field painters during this time.

Just like them, she reconnoitered the power of color and form in radiant, contemplative paintings.

During her late sixties, she retired from teaching and finally became a professional artist.

Alma’s abstract oeuvre was an insider to the viewer of her audacity. To take up a mode that was largely dominated by white men. 

She greatly struggled as an artist first and then as a black woman artist. 

At the age of 81, she made history when she became the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1971.

In 2015, she made history again as the first Black artist to have a piece of her oeuvre purchased by the White House Collection.

Her renown has only grown since her death.

What is Alma Thomas known for?

Is Alma Thomas black?

How did Alma Thomas die?

11. Archibald Motley- Visual Artist

a painting called "Street Scene, Chicago 1936" by one of the famous black artists, Archibald Motley.

A famous black artist that so modern that he was almost contemporary.

In his vibrant streetscapes and portraits, Archibald Motley addressed racial injustice and stereotypes in urban America.

He was a virtuoso at using color to depict diverse skin tones as well as night sceneries.

Motley an unparalleled famous black artist — was widely associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Archibald John Motley, Jr., was born on October 7, 1891, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

His family relocated to Chicago when his father obtained a job as a Pullman car porter.

Growing up on Chicago’s south side which was a racially homogenous area where he also attended substantially-white schools. mostly

He even worked a variety of odd jobs.

Motley later went on to study at Chicago’s famed School of the Art Institute, where he learned academic art techniques.

At SAIC, he made friends with both white and black artists, albeit his work nearly exclusively depicted the latter.

After graduating he won the Guggenheim Fellowship that funded his year-long study in France.

Motley was not especially gregarious and avoided the art world circle.

He instead spent most of his time studying the Great Renaissance masters and creating his own works of art.

The formal refinement and maturity in their artwork were what he needed to add depth to his own work.

Particularly in genre paintings of Dutch artists like Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Hals.

Motley recognized the force of the individual, as well as the manner in which portraiture may represent a tangible machine capable of breaking this uniformity.

That mixed with his westernized education he created artistic styles that were rarely associated with blacks.

And with this, he broke the barrier of white world aesthetics.

Motley was convinced that art could enhance racial emancipation and societal progress by eradicating racial prejudice.

When he returned from Paris in 1930, he began teaching at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

During the 1930s and 1940s, he produced some of his most well-known works.

You could almost hear the rhythm of music through his paintbrush.

After his wife died in 1948, he traveled to Mexico on multiple occasions, painting stunning scenes of life and scenery. 

In 1981, he died in Chicago.

Motley was an idealist who did not shy away from folklore fantasies; he confronted slavery and racism head-on.

What was Archibald Motley known for?

What kind of artist was Archibald Motley?

Who painted “Bronzeville at night?”

12. Augusta Savage – Sculptor

a sculpture called "Gamin" made by one of the famous black artists, Augusta Savage.

A sculptor, a teacher, the first black woman to open an art gallery in America, and most importantly a rival to De Kooning and Dali.

Augusta she was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and the movement for Black artists’ equality.

She pushed against the stereotyped art of the time in order to portray Black people in a more impartial and sympathetic light.

Augusta Christine Fells was born in Florida on February 29, 1892.

She fought through poverty, racism, and even her father’s dismay to accomplish her desire to be an artist.

When in school she would make small sculptures which her teachers really praised and hired her to teach clay-modeling classes.

That was when she discovered her love for teaching and never let go.

She found her first ray of hope when she won a prize for her sculpture at a County Fair.

With $4.60 she moved to New York to study at the Cooper Union School of Art but with her drive, she found a job and started school.

After her graduation, she stayed back and worked in a small studio apartment.

Savage was then chosen to attend a summer art program in France, but her application was turned down.

Why? — Because she was a black woman

It was not dismissed by Savage, and she went on to expose the bias in the press, making headlines.

Despite the fact that her protest was ignored by the admissions committee, she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to study in Paris in 1929.

Her exhibition of sculptures earned her a second grant and the opportunity to travel around Europe.

In 1932, she returned to Harlem and founded the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts.

Where she offered free tuition to those who wanted to learn how to paint, sketch or sculpt, and she became an influential teacher.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Savage was a key artist of the Harlem Renaissance, receiving orders to create bronze busts of prominent civil rights activists.

She went on to gain prominent positions in the community as a Black artist and an activist.

The story of the commission and destruction of “The Harp” in 1939 is a microcosm of the challenges Savage faced then and black artists are still facing today.

Today Savage is survived by some of her sculptures as many of them were made from perishable items.

Augusta Savage died in 1962 of cancer and her death was shrouded in secrecy.

Savage has been lost to history but her work and her plight still resonate.

Who is Augusta Savage?

How did Augusta Savage die?

What are three facts about Augusta Savage?

Even though times changed and slavery slowly vanished, the African-American community in America is still faced with prejudice. 

If there were any changes between the period from Prince Demah to Augusta Savage was just the education.

Their recognition? Still lost. Still fighting for it.

Their name? Lost in oblivion in contrast to names like Copley, Dali, De Kooning, etc.

Their plight? Still can be found on every street, on every canvas, in every drop of paint. 

I struggled to find information on these exceptional artists because the whites beat them to it.

Famous Black Artists today continue to fight the fight that started sometime in 1619 the day their ancestors were loaded in the São João Bautista.

Just through a different medium, through a different voice, for someone out there to listen to their plight.

When one artist falls three more will rise, to continue fighting because “Black Lives Matter” — they always have they always will.

Help me enter the names of these famous black artists in the annals of art history.

Not just the Black art community but the less renowned art community itself suffers today.

Help PortraitFlip, support the artist community by contributing via your love of art.

Artists want people to appreciate what they make, so get a photo to paint made today by us because you are not just supporting art, you are helping it grow. 

That’s all she could say…

Hey, there beautiful souls,

If you have read this article, thank you.

If you think it deserves to be shared with the world, please do.

Famous Black Artists from the past, must have their place in art history today, and that is exactly what I have tried to do. 

If you have any comments or questions feel free to use the comments section below.

Don’t forget to support us on YouTube and Instagram.

Thank you and God Bless!


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