To celebrate Black History Month and to gear up for Women’s History Month in March, we’re taking you through the life of Augusta Savage (February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962) . She’s one of the most iconic black female artists who created incredible African American art throughout her career. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts
We’ll also be exploring one of her most famous pieces of African American artwork, “Gamin” which lives at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Let’s begin!
Who is Augusta Savage?
Augusta Savage was a sculptor that rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, and eventually making her way to New York, her sculptures represent African American life with an honest, yet dignified approach, making her the perfect artist to focus on for Black History Month.
Married and widowed multiple times, Savage started working with clay as a young woman in Florida against her father’s wishes. Although Savage recalls that her father nearly “whipped all the art” out of her, she continued nonetheless and won her first prize for one of her sculptures at the 1919 West Palm Beach County Fair.
Eventually, she left for New York with $4.60 to her name and enrolled at Cooper Union School of Art. She completed impressive busts of prominent African American figures such as WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garvey making her one of the first artists to create African American art that dealt consistently with black physical features
Savage’s most notable African American artwork is “Gamin” featuring the bust of a young, poor boy in circa 1929. She won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for the piece and was given the opportunity to travel to Europe where her art was well-received at Parisian salons and elsewhere.
Upon returning to New York in 1932, she opened Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts and became a widely respected art teacher in Harlem. She became the first African American artist to join the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and, in 1937 was appointed the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center.
Her accomplishments are too many to list but eventually, her career took a turn. She moved upstate and reconnected with her daughter for a quieter life, although art was still her true passion until her death in 1962.
“Gamin” by Augusta Savage
“Gamin” was created early in Savage’s career and depicts the bust of a poor boy on the streets. Some indicate that the sculpture may have been of Savage’s nephew, Ellis Ford. However, no one is quite sure.
Gamin means “street urchin” in French and the piece was, as we mentioned, the gateway for Savage to study in Europe and gain attention at the prestigious Parisian salons.
Something that strikes us is in this African American artwork is the honesty and frankness it presents toward poverty and race. It’s a dignified portrayal of what it means to struggle through an impoverished existence yet it doesn’t shy away from the realities of poverty.
The statue’s wrinkled shirt and modest cap emphasize his lot in life. However, his wise expression is striking in contrast. Still, this perceived wisdom beyond his years shows that he’s likely seen more hardship than any child should have to