The Museum is grateful for the contributions of Kevin Click and April Liou for the recent purchase of Dragon, an abstract oil painting created around 1957 by African American artist Hale Woodruff.
Woodruff always saw himself as a modernist. His earliest paintings were inspired by the Post-Impressionists of Paris, and his bright use of color and bold use of brushstroke to create landscape scenes were reminiscent of Fauvism from the early years of the 20th century. And while his murals turned an artistic corner from Post-Impressionism into the stylized realism of American Regionalism—greatly influenced by his time with Diego Rivera—they are still modern. It is then no surprise that once exposed to the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School in New York City—with artists like Franz Kline, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollack—that Woodruff too took this next step in modern painting.
However, Woodruff folded his study and understanding of African culture into his take on Abstract Expressionism. Many of his fully abstract artworks use colors and patterns reminiscent of African sculpture, textiles, and folklore. The dragon appears universally in folklore around the world, perhaps best known in Asia and Europe, but it is also seen in Africa. In African mythologies, tribal stories, and religions, a serpent-like dragon is often used to tell the creation story. Of course, the dangerous nature of a dragon is that it can also be seen as a figure that brings about death. In West Africa there’s a dragon referred to as the Rainbow Serpent or Aido-Hwedo, perhaps referenced here with Woodruff’s use of bright colors.
Best known as a muralist, educator, and promoter of the art and careers of other African American artists, Hale Woodruff’s participation and leadership in Abstract Expressionism as an African American places him in an elite group with other first generation African American Abstract Expressionist painters, like Charles Alston, Alma Thomas, Norman Lewis, and Beauford Delaney. As stated in an article published by the Art Institute of Chicago Challenging the Twilight, “At the time of his death, Woodruff was one of the most quietly influential painters and teachers of the 20th century.”
It’s also valuable to note that the provenance of this painting plays into its historical value. The artwork was gifted by the artist to Irene M. and Wilbert C. Petty. Throughout their extensive travels as a couple, they amassed an enormous collection of African and African American artworks. When Wilbert died in 1986, Irene continued to collect. The Pettys were significant benefactors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC and left a collection of over 280 objects to the Museum.
Woodruff was born in 1900 in Cairo, Il but raised in Nashville, TN. After completing high school, he enrolled in the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis. Employed for a time at the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, he met leading figures in the African American arts and literary community, like W. E. B. DuBois, Charles S. Johnson, Walter White, and Countee Cullen who helped to promote Woodruff’s art. Further art studies then took him to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum, the Academie Scandinave, and the Academie Moderne, both in Paris, from 1927 to 1931. While in Paris—and financially supported by Edith Halpert, a New York art dealer, and Abby Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller—he studied with Henry Ossawa Tanner and primarily painted Fauvist landscapes and Cubist pictures.
After studying abroad, he returned to the US and taught at Atlanta University—now Clark Atlanta University—where he helped establish the art curriculum. In the mid-1930s he traveled to Mexico to study with muralist Diego Rivera. Upon his return to Atlanta he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) painting murals for the Atlanta School of Social Work. Between 1939 and 1940 he painted his best-known Amistad murals inside Savery Library at Talladega College in Alabama to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship’s successful mutiny. Woodruff originally went to New York on the Julius Rosenwald grant in 1943, and from 1946 until his retirement in 1968 taught at New York University. While teaching he supported and promoted many young Black artists. Woodruff, along with Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and Norman Lewis founded Spiral, the African American artist collective in 1963. The group’s aim was to meet for critiques and discuss how the Black artist should participate in the Civil Rights Movement.
His paintings are held in the most renowned museums in the country, including: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Newark Museum, and the Studio Museum in Harlem among others. His work is also kept at universities, including Howard University, New York University, Clark Atlanta University, and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
— Whitney Richardson, associate curator