Hale Woodruff

Hale Woodruff 

Hale Woodruff

Hale Woodruff (August 26, 1900 - September, 1980) was an African American artist born on August 26, 1900, in Cairo, Illinois.  He later moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he attended high school.  After graduating from Nashville's Pearl High School, where he had been the cartoonist for the school newspaper, Woodruff studied at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, at Harvard University's Fogg Museum School, and at Académie Moderne in Paris with legendary African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1927.  Tanner was living in France having fled racism and discrimination in the United States.  Woodruff, like most young painters, was an artist in search of himself.  In Paris, he painted landscapes, black genre and Cubist pictures but after sometime he ultimately end up an abstractionist, emphasizing African symbolism.

Woodruff was a black artist who sought to express his heritage in his abstract painting.  Of his artwork he once said: "I think abstraction is just another kind of reality. And although you may see a realistic subject like a glass or a table or a chair, you have to transpose or transform that into a picture, and my whole feeling is that to get the spectator involved it has to extend that vision" . . ." (Herskovic 358)

 Hale Woodruff - Amistad Mutiny

Hale Woodruff, Armistad Mutiny

Woodruff was known nationally for his murals, paintings, and prints.   He completed three mural series the three-panel “Amistad Mutiny” murals (1938) for the Talladega College in Talladega CountyAlabama, “The Negro in California History” for the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company in California (a collaboration with Charles Alston), and “The Art of the Negro” at Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries.  The murals, commissioned and painted during the Great Depression, are entitled: “The Revolt, The Court Scene, and Back to Africa”, portraying events related to the slave revolt on the “Amistad”.  Located in Savery Library at Talladega College, they depict events on the ship, the U.S. Supreme Court trial, and the Mende people's return to Africa.

The library also has a portrayal of the ship as part of the lobby floor as well as other Woodruff murals depicting other events from African-American history, including student registration at the college after the American Civil War.

Upon his return to America from France in 1931, he joined the faculty of Atlanta University faculty where he remained a member for fifteen years.  He established the art department in the depths of the Depression, and his faculty position made him one of the first college professors of studio art in the state of Georgia.   While his early work reflects his exposure to cubism while living in France during the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Paris-trained African American artist developed a distinctive American regionalist style.   The urban and rural landscapes of Georgia inclined his work and that of his students toward the regionalist style popular during that era.

 Hale Woodruff - The Negro in California History

Hale Woodruff, The Negro in California History 

In the course of a decade, Woodruff developed a "one-man art department," promoted a plethora of visual arts activities, and initiated the Atlanta University Art Annuals (1942-70), twenty-nine national art exhibitions for black artists.  His the late 1930s, black history murals painted for Atlanta's Talladega College Savery Library reflect the influences of the great mural painters of the age, Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera.  As with several other African American artists of the age, Woodruff was inspired by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera with whom he had recently studied while in Mexico.  While Woodruff may be best known for these works, during this time, he also produced prints of black lynching and poverty. 

In response to Atlanta University's "Six-Year Plan" for establishing a School of Music and Fine Arts, Woodruff conducted art classes on the Spelman College campus for Atlanta University's Laboratory High School and for Spelman and Morehouse College students.   Among some of the major exhibitions Woodruff succeeded in bringing to the Atlanta University Center campus were selections from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art and works by fifty-four contemporary black artists sponsored by the Harmon Foundation.  

 Hale Woodruff - The Art of the Negro

Hale Woodruff, The Art of the Negro 

The development of Clark Atlanta University's historic collection of African American art, harvested from the Atlanta University Art Annuals, is wholly attributed to Woodruff's vision and effort.  In 1968 he stated, "The one thing I think that must be guarded against is that, in our efforts to create a black image and to assert our quality, our character, our blackness, our beauty, and all that, the art form must remain one of high level."

Referring to the influence of African art on the development of Western art, Woodruff stated: "This the Art of the Negro mural has to do with a kind of interpretive treatment of African art. . . .  I've always had a high regard and respect for the African artist and his art.  So this mural . . . is for me, a kind of token of my esteem for African art."  The six panels convey a synthesis of the art history of non-European worlds. Also apparent are the lessons learned from Rivera, but the impact of the art of Africa is manifest in this series.

In 1943, Woodruff went to New York City for two years on a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation.  Though he would return for a year to his Atlanta teaching position, this essentially marked the start of his life in New York as an abstract painter and member of the faculty at New York University.   In 1946 he moved permanently to New York, where he taught at New York University until his retirement in 1968.  

Woodruff died in New York City on September 6, 1980, but his impact as a teacher in the Atlanta University Center is palpable in the work of his students.  He was a member of the New Jersey Society of Artists, New York State Council on the Arts and the Society of Mural Painters.  Woodruff's paintings can be seen at Atlanta University and Talladega College, Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit Institute of Arts; Newark Museum, New Jersey; Howard University and Library of Congress, Washington, D.C; New York University and New York Public Library, New York City.

Suggested Reading

  • Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993).
  •  The Hale Woodruff Memorial Exhibition: Curators' Choice, essay by Helen M. Shannon (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1994), exhibition catalog.
  • Winifred L. Stoelting, "Hale Woodruff, Artist and Teacher: Through the Atlanta Years" (master's thesis, Emory University, 1978).
  • William E. Taylor and Harriet G. Warkel, A Shared Tradition: Art by Four African Americans (Bloomington: Indiana University Press for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1996), exhibition catalog.

 

 

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