In continuing with our art history features, I’ve collected
some fantastic people of color in art. So very often, when influential artists
are discussed, it’s the usual suspects (Da Vinci, Monet, etc.) over and over.
While we’ll discuss some familiar faces, I hope this list hits on other artists
you may not be as familiar with and opens up some new doors to art movements
and styles to explore.
The following list, in no particular order, highlights some fantastic artists who’ve made an indelible mark on the world and contributed greatly to the world of art throughout history and today.
Perhaps it’s my being a native Metro-Detroiter and love for the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts that places Rivera so high on this list. When considering this list, I immediately thought about Rivera’s depictions of Detroit and his way of utilizing space in large murals. I’m jumping well ahead of myself, however.
Diego Rivera (1886–1957) was a Mexican painter known for his murals and social commentary within them. At 21, Rivera studied art in Europe, having been sponsored by the governor of Veracruz to do so. He was influenced by cubism and similar modern art movements of the day. In 1921, at the age of 35, he returned to Mexico. It’s at this time that he began to create large murals. His first was sponsored by the Mexican government and created at the National Preparatory School in Mexico City, Mexico.
Rivera’s work was vibrant and influenced more and more by his home country. He tackled social subjects within Mexico, like the 1910 Revolution, left-wing political beliefs, and anti-religion stance. His work was largely illustrative, telling stories within each space of his frescos in a bold and detailed fashion that often ruffled feathers in society and still remain controversial today.
Rivera was married five times, twice to Frida Kahlo, whom I profiled in a previous art history article. Rivera’s murals and paintings can be found in several countries, some of which include the piece’s original home, such as the 27 frescos that reside at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
R. C. Gorman
Rudolph Carl Gorman (1931–2005) was a Navajo painter born in Chinle, Arizona. Gorman has been hailed as "the Picasso of Southwestern Art" or "the Picasso of American Indian art". He, like many children, drew from an early age. He was encouraged to develop his interest in art, which eventually led to a scholarship to the Mexico City College from the Navajo Tribal Council.
His passion for his culture's influence in art led to a solo gallery exhibit in 1965 at the Manchester Gallery in New Mexico. Due to his success, he opened the R. C. Gorman Navajo Gallery in Taos, New Mexico, where he remained in studio and residence for years to come.
Gorman's work was influenced by artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros. He pushed his work into the realm of abstract realism, playing with abstract forms to create his own style. Many of his paintings focus on Navajo women, their roles within the Navajo Nation, and how they relate to women the world over.
Initially Gorman worked with oil, acrylic, or pastel. As time went on, he moved on to lithographs (especially in making prints of his own work) and ceramics. Gorman was incredibly successful during his lifetime in creating a large body of work and selling his paintings and prints from his gallery.
Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806) was born in Japan and is remembered as one of the best ukiyo-e artists in history. His work largely consists of portraits of women (bijin-ga) and nature studies rendered into woodblock prints. Ukiyo-e art typically tackles the subjects of beautiful women, kubuki, sumo, folk tales, nature, and erotica. The genre wasn’t considered serious art, being aimed at an audience of common people.
Utamaro’s life wasn’t well documented. It’s known that he was taught by Toriyama Sekein, an artist who was trained in the Kano school of painting, but shifted his own focus to ukiyo-e work later in life. Under the name Kitagawa Toyoaki, Utamaro illustrated popular literature and kabuki actors.
In the early 1780s he changed his name to Utamaro and eventually worked solely on portraits of women. His models were largely from the pleasure district. It’s with these pieces that he became famous for his subject matter and idealized stylizations of the female form.
In 1804 Utamaro ran into trouble with censorship laws for depicting a banned historical novel. He was sentenced to either being handcuffed or imprisoned for 50 days (accounts differ). It’s said the ordeal was devastating to him and led to his depression, from which he never recovered before his death two years later.
Utamaro was prolific. He produced over 2,000 prints during his career and created many paintings, illustrated books, and more. His work was well known and loved during his life time and beyond. When you think or hear of bijinga or ukiyo-e art, it’s Utamaro’s work that rises above the rest and continues to be amongst the greatest of his age.
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was an American artist whose short life burned bright before a heroin overdose at the age of 27. His work tackled social issues including power structures, racism, and classism. In 1976 he began spray-painting graffiti under the name SAMO, continuing to do so throughout the late 70s.
In 1980, when he was featured in a group gallery show, his work garnered attention. Soon he was selling paintings for up to $50,000 a piece. Basquiat was a part of the Neo-Expressionist movement, which often depicted recognizable objects or ideas in emotional ways. In the mid-80s, he partnered up with Andy Warhol on a series of collaborative pieces that largely involved Warhol screen-printing elements and Basquiat adding painted components.
Basquiat’s personal work often incorporated words and graffiti-like textures. He tackled issues influenced by his Afro-Caribbean heritage, including a multi-panel painting told stories of Egyptian and Atlantic slave trade. Many pieces of his are sketchy or filled with doodles. Bright colors and crudely drawn imagery covered canvases, sketchbook pages, and more.
His work inspired so many in creating emotional, scribbled, and thoughtful work. Thanks to artists like Basquiat, urban-inspired work entered art galleries and the more serious art world.
Robert S. Duncanson
Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) was an African-American painter associated with the Hudson River School, an art movement focused on landscapes and influenced by romanticism. He was not formally trained, but honed his skill through copying prints and observation. In the 1840s, he debuted at an exhibition in Cincinnati, Ohio. Duncanson’s family wasn’t permitted to attend the event with their being African-American and segregation at its peak. Throughout the 1840s, Duncanson focused on portraiture.
It wasn’t until he shifted his focus to landscapes that his work took off. Charles Avery, an abolitionist, commissioned a painting from Duncanson. This led to a network of patrons who were anti-slavery and supporters of the arts; they sustained his career. His landscape pieces were more than just renditions of physical space. They carried the socio-political messages, of the day as well.
Duncanson exiled himself to Canada during the Civil War. He was influenced heavily by the Canadian landscape even after he left for the United Kingdom and later returned to Cincinnati, Ohio. He was one of the first American painters to take up residence in Canada and focus on its landscape. His work added subtle touches from his own experiences as a black man in Antebellum America without his work being categorized strictly as “African-American” in a time when that would have been career limiting.
Abanindranath Tagore (1871–1951) was an Indian artist, writer, and founder of the Bengal school of art movement. He’s noted as the first Indian artist to gain worldwide recognition. He studied at the Calcutta School of Art under European painters O. Ghilardi and Charles Palmer.
Tagore considered Western art to be “materialistic” and focused instead on Indian artistic traditions. Mughal art was a major early influence on his work as well as Japanese art and calligraphy, which can be seen within his watercolor pieces. Tagore developed this “Indian style of painting”, as it was also known, combining modern imagery with spiritual qualities. Bharat Mata (“Mother India”) was one such painting that shows a woman with four arms similar to depictions of Hindu deities.
This art style was promoted as the national style of art, gaining popularity world-wide and bringing Indian art and artists into the galleries of Europe. Even to this day, the Bengal school of art is an ongoing legacy of artists and calligraphers.
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913–1941) was an Indian-Hungarian painter who is considered one of the most important female painters of India of the 20th century. Her work, begun as a girl in Hungary, bloomed when she went to India in 1934 at the age of 21. Her artwork’s focus settled on the poor of India, depicting their world and lives in paint.
She captured the reality of India, showing emaciated figures with passive, moody expressions. She focused on farm workers, nurses, and other common people in Southern India. Her style was inspired by European modernism but captured the growing Independence of India as a country and culture.
It wasn’t until her death that her work gained popularity in India and Europe. She’s also regarded as the most expensive Indian artist, having had a painting sold for ₹6.9 crores in 2006 (roughly $1.5 million USD at the time). Her work inspired and continues to inspire contemporary Indian artists.
Tarsila do Amaral
Tarsila do Amaral (1886–1973) was a Brazilian modernist artist whose work combined Brazilian ideas with avant-garde aesthetics. Tarsila was born to privilege, but unlike other privileged women in Brazil at the time, she had a family that supported her education and artistic pursuits. She studied art in Paris where she was influenced by Cubism and Fernand Leger.
She was a part of the Grudo dos Cinco (“Group of Five”) who organized the Semana de Arte Moderna (“Week of Modern Art”) in 1922 in São Paulo. Artists participating in the event challenged the conservative art establishment with their modern aesthetic. This event and the artists involved were pivotal in Brazil’s modern art movement and promotion of Brazilian culture to the world through art.
In 1923, Tarsila returned to Paris and infused her culture into Cubism and similarly modern styles. Thanks to trips back home to Brazil, her work took on Brazilian subject matter, rendering landscapes and people of Brazil into modern, Cubist ideals.
Oswald de Andrade, a poet and member of the Grupo dos Cinco, wrote poetry that she illustrated. His work called for artists to export Brazilian culture to the world, especially Europe whose influence made a great impact on Brazil. They sought to influence the world with Brazilian culture, and thanks to numerous paintings, Tarsila was largely successful.
Tarsila leaves behind a legacy of 230 paintings that helped bring modernism to Latin America and to share Brazil with the world. Her work and intentions influenced and continue to influence artists in sharing indigenous Brazilian concepts and themes in art.
Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) was a Chinese painter, calligrapher, and poet, and is regarded as one of the masters (one of four) of Ming painting. Wen’s work often focused on simple things, like a tree, and the theme of isolation and loneliness. He also focused on celebrating the lives and society of the elite since they were his patrons. He was taught and influenced by the Wu school’s founder, Shen Zhou.
Wen produced work under a number of styles, becoming prolific in both painting and poetry. His paintings were sought after by collectors to the point of counterfeits of his work being common during the late Ming period.
Wen became a leading figure of the Ming period, going on to influence artists for years to come. He became a leader of the Wu school in his own right, attracting many students and influencing his own sons to follow in his footsteps.
Kamal ud-Din Behzad
Kamal ud-Din Behzad (c. 1450 – c. 1535) was a Persian painter known for creating miniature paintings and illuminated manuscripts. Behzad’s manuscripts were created in his own style, which took geometric compositions common to Persian art and opened them up to be more spacious to allow action and movement into his pieces. He also was skilled at guiding the viewers eye around the composition in an organic fashion, creating natural expressions and figures within his work.
Behzad’s work was naturally playful and expressive, which was uncommon to Persian work at the time. He introduced naturalism to Persian work, utilizing realistic gestures and expressions in his figures, and focusing more on the individual within a composition rather than filling up space with design and patterns.
He is considered to be one of the greatest painters of Persian miniatures, and his work and aesthetic went on to influence Persian and even Indian art in years to come.
This list is far too short and incomplete, only consisting of ten artists from around the globe and throughout history. Check out our previous art history article featuring ten fantastic women in art:
Who are some of your favorite artistic influences? Who made an indelible mark upon the world? Who did you learn about today that you weren’t aware of previously? Share with us in the comment section below!