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Perspective | Slavery’s horror, powerfully stylized by a Harlem Renaissance artist

Aaron Douglas had been making powerful murals for almost a decade when he created “Into Bondage,” a painting now at the National Gallery of Art. Douglas (1899-1979) was one of the most brilliant artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance. When he took on heavy subjects — in this case the enslavement of Africans and their transportation to America — he did so in a seductive, stylized idiom that combines heroic silhouettes with an Egyptian-influenced design, shifting degrees of transparency and a ravishing color palette.

Whether you can abide so much artistry in a depiction of something so harrowing may be a test of your sensibilities — but also, perhaps, of your historical imagination.

Douglas worked during a period in which racial “science” had convinced many that Black culture could never compare to the depth and richness of European culture. He set out to shame that baneful narrative. His work addressed the same questions that animate Black artists today, including Deana Lawson, Rashid Johnson, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. What does it mean to be Black both in America and in the Black diaspora? How should the “African” part of “African American” be understood? What might a genuinely modern visual language by African American artists look like?

Douglas’s answers came in the form of an original, illustrational idiom that looks stronger than ever today. Admire, in this painting, the sophisticated interaction of the main subject — a diagonal line of shackled figures receding in space — with the overlaid pattern of transparent concentric circles emanating from the setting sun. The figures’ long march is framed by lush, enveloping foliage, accentuating our sense of watching from within as brothers and sisters are cast out of an intimate Eden. The diagonal and curving lines of the plants and the single ray of starlight establish jazzy rhythms. Douglas maintains order by staying in an adjacent color key (purple and maroon) and using only subtle gradations in tone.

Douglas was born and raised in Topeka, Kan. His father, a baker, and his mother, an amateur artist, had been part of the Great Migration. He came to New York in 1925, planning to stop only briefly before continuing his art education in Paris, but he was persuaded to stay by Alain Locke, the “dean of the Harlem Renaissance,” whose special-issue magazine, “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro,” came out that year. Its illustrations were by Winold Reiss, who became Douglas’s teacher. There was no need, Douglas realized, to make a pilgrimage to Paris; Harlem could provide all the stimulus and sustenance he needed.

He was versatile, and he worked in media that allowed for wide and swift distribution: woodblock prints publicizing theater; dust jacket illustrations for some of the Harlem Renaissance’s most influential books; and cover designs for magazines, including Fire!! and the Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.

By the late 1920s, he was making murals, the most famous of which, “Aspects of Negro Life,” was commissioned in 1934 by the Public Works Administration and made for the Countee Cullen Library (in a Harlem building that is now part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). “Aspects,” which told the African American story in four panels, led to a second four-panel commission. This one, for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas, was to be installed in the lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, which opened on Juneteenth (June 19), a celebration of the end of slavery in Texas.

“Into Bondage” and the De Young Museum’s “Aspiration” are the only two of those four panels surviving. Both stand alone as singular oil paintings, testaments both to the power of style and to the visual sophistication of narrative illustration at its best.

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