Black History Month with Augusta Savage

Black History Month with Augusta Savage

In honor of Black History Month, and as a prelude to Women's History Month in March, we embark on a journey through the remarkable life of Augusta Savage (February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962). Renowned as a pivotal figure among black female artists, Savage dedicated her career to producing extraordinary African American art. Her work not only showcases immense talent but also embodies her steadfast commitment to advocating for the rights of African Americans within the artistic community.

Furthermore, we will delve into an examination of "Gamin," one of her most celebrated works, which is proudly displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Join us as we explore the legacy of Augusta Savage, whose contributions have left an indelible mark on the world of art.

Who is Augusta Savage?

gamin front view

Augusta Savage emerged as a distinguished sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. Originating from Green Cove Springs, Florida, and later relocating to New York, Savage's sculptures poignantly capture the essence of African American life, portraying it with both honesty and dignity. This makes her an exemplary figure to highlight during Black History Month.

Despite facing personal challenges, including multiple marriages and widowhoods, Savage began her artistic journey with clay in Florida, defying her father's disapproval. Her father once feared he had "whipped all the art" out of her, yet Savage persevered, earning her first accolade for a sculpture at the 1919 West Palm Beach County Fair.

With just $4.60 to her name, Savage ventured to New York and enrolled at the Cooper Union School of Art. There, she crafted remarkable busts of notable African American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, becoming one of the pioneering artists to consistently represent African American features in art.

Among her most celebrated works is "Gamin," a sculpture depicting the bust of a young, impoverished boy from around 1929. This piece earned Savage the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, allowing her to travel to Europe. Her work received high acclaim in Parisian salons and beyond, marking a significant period in her career where her art transcended borders and resonated with a global audience.

gamin side view

After her return to New York in 1932, Augusta Savage established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, earning a reputation as a revered art instructor in Harlem. She broke new ground as the first African American artist to become a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. In 1937, she achieved another milestone by being appointed as the inaugural director of the Harlem Community Art Center.

Savage's achievements are numerous and her influence profound. However, her career experienced a shift when she moved upstate to embrace a more tranquil life, rekindling her relationship with her daughter. Despite the change in her surroundings, her passion for art remained undiminished until her passing in 1962.

“Gamin” by Augusta Savage

gamin side view


Created in the early stages of Savage's career, "Gamin" features the bust of a young boy living in poverty. There is speculation that the subject of the sculpture might have been Savage’s nephew, Ellis Ford, though this remains uncertain.

The term "Gamin" translates to "street urchin" in French, and this piece notably opened doors for Savage to pursue further studies in Europe, where it garnered significant attention in the esteemed Parisian salons.

What is particularly compelling about this piece of African American art is its raw and truthful representation of poverty and racial identity. It offers a respectful depiction of the challenges of impoverished life without glossing over the harsh realities.

The sculpture's attention to detail, such as the wrinkles in the shirt and the simple cap, highlights the boy's socioeconomic status. Yet, it is the expression of wisdom on his face that captures the viewer's attention—a wisdom that suggests he has experienced more adversity than any child should. This juxtaposition makes "Gamin" a powerful statement on resilience and the premature loss of innocence.

gamin back view

As we celebrate diversity in the arts, the legacy of Augusta Savage stands as a beacon of inspiration and resilience. Through her pioneering work and dedication, Savage not only carved a space for African American artists in the early 20th century but also used her art to portray the dignity, beauty, and complexity of Black life. Her contributions extend beyond her sculptures; through her teaching and leadership, she nurtured a future generation of artists, ensuring that the voices of the Harlem Renaissance would echo long into the future.

Savage's journey from the clay pits of Florida to the esteemed salons of Paris exemplifies the power of art to transcend barriers and the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. Her story is a testament to the enduring spirit of creativity and the role of artists as catalysts for social change. As we reflect on Savage's impact, let us continue to celebrate and uplift the stories of Black artists who have shaped our cultural landscape. Augusta Savage's legacy reminds us of the transformative power of art and its capacity to challenge, inspire, and heal.

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