The Visual Arts in Arturo A. Schomburg’s Black Atlantic
The prominent status of the visual arts in Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s career as a collector of Africana and race author is evident in the cache of over 1000 etchings and prints that was part of the legendary collection he sold to the New York Public Library in 1926. Many of the essays that Schomburg published in renowned Harlem journals such as Crisis and Opportunity focused on Black Atlantic painters. He was the generous patron of a number of Harlem Renaissance artists such as Albert Smith and Ernest Braxton. Although Schomburg died without finishing any single book based on his extensive archival and bibliographical efforts, he outlined a book project related to Afro-Atlantic visual arts in a one-page typescript found among his unpublished papers. It is a prospectus organized as the tentative table of contents of a twelve-chapter volume under the title “The Negro in the Field of Painting.” It may have been, more than a work-in-progress, an idea-in-progress that failed to come to fruition in Schomburg’s late years.
Schomburg’s great concern for the visual arts complicates the general academic consensus that regards Schomburg mostly as an avid bibliophile and curator of lettered artifacts, rare books, and manuscripts by or about Africans and Afro-descendants. The attention he paid to grand European Master painting as an important venue for Black enterprise and uplift was as keen as that he placed on other cultural forms of subaltern agency. In Schomburg’s essays, Black painters appear as transcendental facilitators for the historical progress of Africans and Afro-descendents; their works merit the same veneration as the poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Phillis Wheatley or the battlefield victories of Antonio Maceo, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and Henri Christophe. To Schomburg, the paintbrush in the Negro’s hand is often mightier than either pen or sword. The Black painter’s capacity for effective iconic fashioning and hands-on participation in image politics seems to have for Schomburg as much historical consequence as the slave poet’s lyrics or the Caribbean general’s rebel campaign.
Although there is no date on the prospectus, Schomburg’s book project on Negro Painters was part of the third and last phase in his career as a Harlem/Brooklyn intellectual, antiquarian, and race leader. This phase begins in 1926, after he sells his legendary collection to the New York Public Library and uses the money to travel abroad on a two month “grand continental tour” in search of representations of and by Black subjects throughout the great art museums of Europe. Schomburg scheduled research and acquisition visits to archives, booksellers, and antiquarian shops throughout his trip, including consulting at Seville’s Archivo General the ecclesiastical records of the city’s Cofradía de Negritos and purchasing 185 bibliographical items that he later donated to the NYPL Schomburg collection. Still, we know from his letters and writings that Schomburg’s main concern in this voyage was the study of European studio painting by or about Afro-descendants dating from or inspired by High Renaissance academic techniques in portraiture and spatial perspective.
Schomburg’s fascination with the explosive artistic innovations and accomplishments of the Early and High Renaissance, particularly those of the escuela de Sevilla, date back to a 1916 piece he published in Crisis on the legend of Sebastian Gómez, el mulato de Murillo. Here Schomburg referred to Juan Ceán Bermúdez’s 1800 Diccionario Histórico de los mas illustres profesores de las Bellas Artes en España in order to present Gómez as a slave who won both his freedom and his admission into the Seville school because of the painting skills he learned surreptitiously, watching his master work while serving as a pigment crusher. Schomburg would later write a short biographical article about another famous Renaissance mulatto servant/painter, Juan de Pareja, who posed for one of his master Diego Velazquez’s most famous portraits. The participation of black slave artists in the school of Seville was the topic of Schomburg’s most important (and still unpublished) address to the American Negro Academy during his tenure as president—“Fragmentary Tribute to Spanish Negro Painters of the School of Seville,” given on December of 1923.
While the Harlem Renaissance explosion in the plastic arts may have stirred Schomburg’s interest in contemporary Black painting at that moment of his life, he did not share the enthusiasm of other Harlem Renaissance intellectuals—such as Alain Locke or Langston Hughes—for avant-garde styles or folk forms of expression, nor did he care to write about ancestral tribal artifacts or African art as such. All of Schomburg’s writings on art before, during, and after this trip focused on the grand tradition of academic or “school” painting that began in the Italian Renaissance and then spread out to Spain, the rest of Europe, and, finally, to the Americas. Schomburg was interested in vindicating the role of the Renaissance Black artist in Western history.
Schomburg’s conventional vision of the graphic artist becomes clear in an undated autobiographical text found among his unpublished papers in which he speaks in detail about his experience as an admirer and promoter of the Fine Arts. The text was probably a draft for a speech given at the inauguration of one of the many Afro-American art exhibits that Schomburg helped put together with the support of the Harmon Foundation in the mid 1930s. Schomburg starts out recalling that his schooling in San Juan included extensive training in the graphic arts:
A number of well educated and disposed Spanish and native individuals in Puerto Rico gave full measure of their talents to advance the cause of education to the working masses. There was opened in 1886 the Bellas Artes School and later the Institute of Enseñanza Popular, established during the year 1888 at the Capital better known as San Juan; where painting, free and mechanical drawing, were among the most popular subjects. The models, plaster, and clay copies from the Louvre, the other essentials and necessary objects for such an institution was [sic] brought from Paris, France, and Barcelona, Spain. The classes were held nightly in this school. I matriculated in free hand and mechanical drawing. For two years my spare time was devoted and engaged in training my mind to what was a marvel in those early days to my eyes.
At the close of the my second year the judges awarded me for special effort, a third class prize[,] an excellent French drawing case. The teachers were men trained in Europe who gave examples of the best that could be had elsewhere. The oral lectures opened a vast vista of the European and Spanish Schools of Art. The great paintings of Velásquez, Murillo, Greco, Goya, etc.
Art folios were in evidence to guide the students in the technical explanations from the teachers. In this atmosphere quite a number of individuals were reared to admire the beauty of nature as drawn by apt hands to hand down to posterity.
Schomburg goes on to say how, as part of his training, he was taught to value the life and works of José Campeche by visiting those San Juan’s churches and public buildings in which “his memory and canvasses stood as examples for us to emulate.” He concludes: “For thirty years in quest for books, prints, and data pertaining to the African descendents, I have found to advantage my early application to drawing helpful; it has served me to better appreciate prints, etchings, and engravings in the books written by and for the Negroes.”
This brief testimony lays out Schomburg’s iconic vision both of Black Atlantic artistic agency and art appreciation. Artistry is mostly learned; it is not a spontaneous or folk activity. It requires systematic academic schooling with the right manuals and props, under the guidance of experts trained in Europe who, thanks to their disinterest and rigor, recognize and promote the artistic talents of non-white subjects such as Sebastián Gómez, Juan de Pareja, and Campeche. Such schooling in technique, such training of eye and hand, leads to skills that increase the appreciation of natural and human complexity. These skills grow further through the subsequent study in specialized museums and collections of how Master artists execute and improve upon techniques of representation. In other words, Schomburg subscribed the process through which collecting and canonizing Renaissance art established the grounds for a multiethnic secular humanism.