Happy (belated) Birthday Augusta Savage, born February 29, 1892! Augusta Savage was an American sculptress, teacher, and activist associated with the Harlem Renaissance. I just learned of her recently and hope you enjoy learning more about her life and art too.
Augusta Savage was born Augusta Christine Fells on February 29, 1892 in Green Spring Cove, Florida (near Jacksonville). She was the seventh of 14 children. Her father was a Methodist minister. In 1915 their family moved to West Palm Beach, Florida.
As a young child, Augusta would play creating figures out of the red clay around her hometown. “From the time I can first recall the rain falling on the red clay in Florida I wanted to make things. When my brothers and sisters were making mud pies, I would be making ducks and chickens with the mud.” (Augusta Savage)
Her father was strongly opposed to her interest in art, however she had a high school principal in West Palm Beach who encouraged her to pursue her creativity and teach a clay modeling class.
Augusta was married three times in her life: the first at the age of 15 to John T. Moore. John died shortly after their daughter was born. She married her second husband in 1915, James Savage. Although they divorced in the 1920s, Augusta kept the last name of Savage throughout her life. She married Robert Lincoln Poston in 1923. Poston was a protégé of Marcus Garvey and worked for the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. Poston later died of pneumonia in 1924 while returning from a delegation.
Augusta Savage the Artist
In 1919 Augusta Savage first found success having a booth at the Palm Beach County Fair and gained commissions in Jacksonville, Florida. Encouraged by her success and with a letter of recommendation from the fair official, Savage moved to New York City in 1921 to pursue art during the early years of the Harlem Renaissance. She attended the Cooper Union Art School and studied under sculptor George Brewster from 1921 to 1923, completing the four year degree in three years.
As a Black woman, Augusta Savage faced many challenges throughout her career. In 1923 she was one of 100 women awarded a scholarship to attend the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in Paris, however after another student refused to attend if she was allowed to, the admissions committee rescinded her invitation.
She received her first commission from the New York Public Library in shortly after and created a bust of Black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. She created several busts of other prominent Black intellectuals and activists after, including Marcus Garvey and William Pickens Sr, as well as completing one of her most famous sculptures “Gamin” which was modeled after her nephew.
In 1925, with the help of W.E.B. DuBois she earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Unfortunately she wasn’t able to raise the money needed for travel and living expenses so she was unable to attend.
A few years later with the creation of her bust “Gamin” Augusta Savage was able to earn a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in 1929 to travel to Paris and study at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. She received financial help from the Urban League, Rosenwald Foundation, a Carnegie Foundation grant, and friends and was able to raise enough to attend. While in Paris she studied with sculptors Félix Benneteau-Desgrois and Charles Despiau. She had works displayed at the Grand Palais, the Paris Salon, and other prestigious venues in Paris. Savage traveled throughout France, Belgium, and Germany to research sculpture in museums and cathedrals.
In 1937 Augusta Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 1939 New York World’s Fair being held in Queens, New York. She was the only Black artist and one of four women who were invited to participate. She created a 16 foot sculpture of plaster called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” which stood in front of the Contemporary Arts Building during the fair. The sculpture featured a row of Black men and boys standing as strings of a harp singing in union with a divine hand holding the harp together. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was inspired by the song written by James Weldon Johnson which had been adopted as the “Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919. The organizers of the World’s Fair renamed the piece to “The Harp.” The piece was well received by visitors and was exhibited alongside work by artists Willem de Kooning and Salvador Dali.
Augusta Savage the Educator & Activist
When Savage returned to New York from Paris in 1931 she opened the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts where she taught students to paint, draw, and sculpt. Some of her later well-known students included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Gwendolyn Knight, and Kenneth B. Clark. Her model of community arts was admired by Eleanor Roosevelt and was replicated for arts centers throughout the country.
During the 1930’s she held many leadership roles within the arts community. In 1934 she was the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now called National Association of Women Artists). She was the president of the Harlem Artists Guild during the 1930s. As an assistant supervisor in the Federal Arts Project sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (part of the New Deal program that specifically helped artists in response to the Great Depression) she advocated for Black artists and the inclusion of African American history in public murals.
Savage continued her leadership roles by becoming the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. Her and her multi-cultural staff facilitated workshops and exhibitions for 1500 people of all ages and abilities. They received funds from the Works Progress Administration, however there were officials who objected to her having a leadership role. She left her role with the WPA in 1939.
Savage opened the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art in Harlem in 1939. It was the first gallery for the exhibition and sale of works by African American artists in America. The gallery exhibited works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as James Lesene Wells, Beauford Delaney, Richmond Barthe, and Lois Mailou Jones. Unfortunately the gallery had to close due to not enough financial backing and sales.
The last major showing of Augusta Savage’s work was in 1939. Discouraged, Savage moved to a farmhouse upstate in Saugerties, NY in 1945. She grew a garden and sold pigeons, chickens, and eggs. She later worked as a lab assistant in The K-B Products Corporation’s cancer research facility, learning how to drive in her 50’s so she could make the commute. She was encouraged by the director to continue her art and he even provided her with supplies. Savage taught art at summer camps and sculpted friends and tourists throughout the rest of her life.
Style & Themes
Augusta Savage sculpted in a realistic style that was expressive and sensitive. Her sculptures portrayed Black individuals as authentic, real human beings instead of fitting into the narrow stereotypical caricatures popular in art and media at the time promoted by the Primitivism movement. She led the way for a new movement of intimate, representational art.
Augusta Savage created sculptures primarily in clay and plaster. For her sculpture “Gamin” she used white plaster covered with brown paint and shoe varnish to imitate bronze. Unfortunately because she didn’t have the funds to cast the majority of her sculptures in bronze, there are very few works that have lasted over time. Even sculptures such as The Harp, had to be destroyed on site because of the expense that it would have taken to move the large piece off site after the fair. A retrospective of her work in 1988 was only able to locate 19 surviving pieces of Savage’s work.
Death & Legacy
Augusta Savage died on March 26, 1962 after battling cancer. Savage is remembered as a great artist, teacher, community organizer, and activist despite the challenges she experienced from Jim Crow era laws, discrimination, and the Great Depression.
Some of the honors she has received after her death include the Baltimore, Maryland high school The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts being named in her honor in 2004, and her hometown of Green Cove Springs, Florida nominating her in 2007 to the Florida Artist Hall of Fame.
In 2001 her home and studio in Saugerties, New York, were listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. The house has been restored to the period when she lived there.
“I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.” (Augusta Savage)
Resources & Further Learning
If you enjoyed learning more about this artist, I encourage you to check out more of her paintings and research more in-depth articles about her life and work.
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About the Artist
Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her. After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes. She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.
Visit her shop or ask about available works.