What you see: Defiance, one of four prints from the Emperor Jones series by Aaron Douglas. It’s from a small group of reprints done with the same wood blocks in 1972, almost 50 years after the originals. Swann Auction Galleries estimates the set at $20,000 to $30,000.
Who was Aaron Douglas? He was a Kansas-born African-American painter, graphic artist, and muralist who was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a flowering of African-American cultural talent that bloomed in the Harlem section of New York City in the 1920s. His illustrations for Alain Locke’s 1925 book, The New Negro: An Interpretation led to a series of commissions from figures who led the Harlem Renaissance. In 1944, Douglas founded the art department at Fisk University, a university in Nashville, Tennessee, and led it for 22 years. He died in 1979 at the age of 79.
Was Aaron Douglas known as a printmaker, or was this series based on the Eugene O’Neill play Emperor Jones a one-off? “He was not known as a printmaker, and they’re the only wood block prints I’m aware of off the top of my head,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department. “It’s from his classic Harlem Renaissance period. It’s unclear when [the prints] were commissioned, but he was published in other magazines at the time. It’s not surprising that he was tapped to do an interpretation of Emperor Jones.”
Best as we can tell, a small but indeterminate number of Emperor Jones prints were made in 1926, and then three more sets of reprints–15, 15, and finally 20–were made in 1972, with Douglas assisted by printmaker Stephanie Pogue. Do we know why the printing was done that way? “The blocks were first carved in 1926. Pogue assisted Douglas at the end of his career. The blocks themselves did not change,” he says. “It’s not unusual for an artist who made prints in the 1920s not to do large numbered editions of prints. It’s not like a contemporary print that’s editioned and sold through a gallery. Later in Douglas’s life, people asked for his works, and he decided to reprint the wood blocks. Why there are three separate reprintings, I don’t know. Maybe they sold out and he did more.”
Are the 1926 prints and the 1972 prints consistent in quality? “If you have your choice, you always want earlier printings. But there are very few examples of Emperor Jones prints done in the 1920s,” he says, noting that the only early set of four that Freeman has seen appeared in a museum exhibition. “There’s not a significant difference in the way they look. They’re printed from the same blocks. There’s not really a significant quality difference. She helped him print a strong impression. They’re more or less the same.”
There might be as many as 100 sets of Emperor Jones prints out there, but the Swann lot notes describe them as scarce. What makes them scarce? Are most of them in museum collections? Were some sets lost? Are collectors just reluctant to let them go? “You just don’t see them coming to auction that often,” he says. “We’ve only had a set once before in my department , and we see a lot of work. They’re things you don’t see very often.”
What’s the auction record for a set of Emperor Jones prints, and what’s the auction record for anything by Aaron Douglas? The Emperor Jones record was set at Swann in October 2008 when a group sold for $22,800. Swann also handled an original 1926 gouache of an Emperor Jones image that sold for $90,000 against an estimate of $35,000 to $50,000 in February 2008. A smallish 1944 painting by Aaron Douglas, Building More Stately Mansions, holds the record for any Douglas work at auction. Swann sold it for $600,000 against an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000 in February 2008.
Why will these Emperor Jones prints stick in your memory? “It’s his classic Harlem Renaissance graphic style. This is the style everyone equates with Aaron Douglas. This is what people think of, what they associate with him the most,” he says. “This is a scarce opportunity to acquire an original work of art in that style. The reason Douglas had such success is he was a very talented graphic artist and designer who was able to synthesize the design ideas and the Art Deco style of the period and infuse it with a strong African-American voice. The black silhouette became about the black figure. He created a depiction of African-Americans that was modern and a celebration of African-American culture, which fit right into the idea of the Harlem Renaissance.”
How to bid: The group of Emperor Jones prints by Aaron Douglas is lot 7 in the African-American Fine Art sale at Swann Auction Galleries on April 5, 2018.
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