Shaping Speed:
Designing Art Deco Automobiles

By Ken Gross

Art Deco embraces distinctive architectural, industrial, and fashion styles that originated around 1910, flourished through the late 1920s and early 30s, lasted until the beginning of World War II in 1941, and returned for a while after World War II ended. Although its influence had waned and the later examples were less ornate, Art Deco styling elements persisted into the 1950s, especially in the world of automobiles. Making excellent use of beautifully rounded forms, mixing baroque elements like the stylized rays of the sun, and artfully melding gentle, flowing curves with razor-sharp edges, these cars were quintessential examples of streamlining. Today many are considered classics.

 

Streamlining was equated with modernity as well as with efficient aerodynamics, especially in transportation. The automobile, an invention of the early twentieth century, rapidly changing and evolving mechanically during that period, was the perfect metal canvas on which to express the popular Art Deco style. Mark McCourt, who has written about Art Deco automobiles, said, “It was an era of unbridled, machine-driven technical advancement, of optimism in the unlimited possibility that the future held.”

 

“Automobiles reflected all this potential,” McCourt added. Despite the Great Depression, “the vibrant promise of modernity and speed” was reflected not just in luxury goods, but also in mass-produced items. “Some brave and revolutionary cars paid tribute to the zeitgeist with their overall design concepts,” he said, “but most showed their Machine Age influence in small ways, in subtle and glorious details.”

 

For automobiles and motorcycles, Gary Vasilash, the Editor-in-Chief of Automotive Design & Production magazine, agreed, claiming: “. . . the Art Deco style can be characterized as the combination of broad gesture and fine detail.”

 

Though the Art Deco influence wasn’t specifically labeled at the time, it was widespread. Acclaimed architects and industrial designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, and Walter Gropius fell under its spell, as did many noted automotive stylists, race car innovators and engineers like Jean Bugatti, Amos Northup, Phillip Wright, Harry Arminius Miller, E.T. “Bob” Gregorie, Harley Earl, Bill Mitchell, Gordon Miller Buehrig, and Walter P. Murphy. 

 

The Streamline Cord

Perhaps the high-water mark of Art Deco influence on automobiles in America is found in the Cord automobile, built in Auburn, Indiana, from 1929 through 1937. The Model L-29 Cord was a highly advanced car in its day. Custom-bodied L-29s, such as the much-acclaimed one-of-a-kind Hayes/de Sakhnoffsky and Saoutchik custom coupes, as well as a few bespoke sedans and limousines by Walter M. Murphy, commissioned for Hollywood celebrities in Pasadena, California, used many Art Deco conceits. Although they look dated today, they remain artistically pure and perfect. Frank Lloyd Wright recognized that the front-drive L-29 Cord’s bold architecture facilitated a dramatically low silhouette, which greatly pleased the most noted architect of his time. 

 

Its successors, the stunning Cord Model 810 and 812, introduced in 1935 and 1936, respectively, embodied nearly every conceivable Art Deco and streamline design element, inside and out. Gordon Miller Buehrig, who also designed the acclaimed Auburn 851 Speedster, created an amalgam of stark angularity and luscious curves. Even the external flex-pipe exhausts on the Model 812, a symbol that became a hallmark of supercharged Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg cars, spoke to a widespread yearning to repeat popular Art Deco forms in nearly every design and engineering application.

 

The Art Deco Bugatti

In mid-1930s France, Jean Bugatti was the talented 25-year-old son of the automaker Ettore Bugatti, whose road and racing cars demonstrated a delightful flair that hinted at Art Deco influence. But it was Jean’s skillful and repeated applications of dramatically curved forms, punctuated with controlled edginess and sweeping lines, that created some of the most memorable automotive shapes of the interwar period. 

 

Jean Bugatti’s stunning Type 57 Superprofile coupe employs a dashing ogee curve that races rearward from the car’s distinctive Bugatti horseshoe-shaped radiator (Ettore was a noted equestrian), rises in a picture-perfect arc thanks to a dramatically raked windscreen, and tapers to a flared, almost impudently shaped deck lid. It’s a pleasing form that makes you smile at its audacity. Auto stylists today are still influenced by this Bugatti’s exquisite roofline and its complementary side sweep panel.

 

American Art Deco Cars

Chrysler’s top engineers, led by the innovative Carl Breer, attempted to change popular automotive perceptions with a decidedly different approach to streamlining and design. The Chrysler Airflow emulated crack passenger trains like the fabled Union Pacific Streamline Express and the B&O Railroad’s Burlington Zephyr. But while the fickle public had accepted the shift from classic steam locomotives to modern diesels, it balked at buying a new car whose lines so abruptly departed from commonly accepted styling practice. Although the Airflow, with its smooth ride, built-in safety elements and flow-through cabin ventilation, was superior to its rivals, Chrysler was forced to redesign the Airflow’s pioneering shape and graft a conventional cover over its new grille. 

 

Nearly out of business as the Great Depression endured, Pierce-Arrow, a once-proud luxury manufacturer based in Buffalo, New York, that vied with Packard and Cadillac, won a competition at the 1933–34 Chicago A Century of Progress International Exhibition with its shapely Silver Arrow, a streamlined leviathan limousine, armed with a locomotive-like 12-cylinder engine. Its Art Deco elements ranged from its sweeping flush fenders that hid the show car’s side-mounted spares, to “. . . an intriguingly sinister rear window treatment [that] perched two slivers of glass in a periscope-like rear peak.” Rear vision was terrible, but it looked great. Art Deco accents and details made the Pierce appear as if Erté himself had a hand in its conception. Phillip O. Wright, a prolific auto stylist, was largely responsible for the design. Just five Silver Arrows were sold, at a then-heady $10,000 each. Pierce-Arrow’s and Studebaker’s attempts to market a watered-down version of Wright’s design failed, as did Pierce-Arrow in 1938. 

 

Some automakers embodied myriad Art Deco touches that are evident only upon close observation. The Jordan Model Z Speedway Ace and the Packard Model 1104 are two examples. Both boast lovely, intricate design elements like impossibly long hoods, overly ornate instrument displays, filigreed door handles, curved and skirted fenders, unusual headlight shapes repeated with tiny matching running lights, and wire wheels that, when spinning, resemble airplane propellers. It is not known who designed the Jordan, but Phillip Wright, who had previously worked for Walter M. Murphy and then LeBaron, had a firm hand in the Packard’s conception. 

 

William B. Stout, a successful aircraft engineer, had designed the famous Ford Tri-Motor airplane. His radical Scarab is arguably one of the most Art Deco-inspired cars ever offered. Oddly beetle-shaped and aircraft-influenced, and a forerunner of the minivan, the Scarab had fluted headlamps, an Egyptian-style nose badge, pert rows of “whiskers” in lieu of a conventional grille (its Ford flathead V-8 was rear-mounted), and a prominent peak that divides the hood and the front windows, all whispering, “Art Deco, Art Deco.” However, only a few Stout Scarabs were ever made. The lethal combination of high price, high risk (buying an unknown make) and sheer unconventionality made them certain to become a lasting footnote to the best of Art Deco style, coupled with an all-too-human reluctance to move forward with bold new ideas.

 

Classic Art Deco-influenced Designs

The innovative French scientist and engineer André Dubonnet teamed up with his country’s most imaginative aircraft designer, Jean Andreau, to design the aperitif baron’s personal dream car on a Hispano-Suiza chassis. The flamboyant Parisian carrossier (coachbuilder) Jacques Saoutchik performed the coachwork honors. Named to memorialize Dubonnet’s young wife Xenia Johnson, who tragically died at an early age, the strikingly attractive coupe resembles a sleek 1930s-era airplane minus wings. Gull-wing windows, parallel doors that open alongside the body, a wicker interior, and horizontal trim elements that accentuate this car’s racy shape made it a timeless Art Deco classic. 

 

The worldwide acclaim for Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to Paris in 1927 helped focus many auto designers on the merits of aerodynamics and aircraft shapes. At first, it was simply the look that captivated them. Then engineers and aerodynamicists began to realize that streamlining had an efficiency component. The next task was to ensure that the designs themselves, while making cars that began to resemble wingless airplanes, remained attractive and acceptably carlike, without alienating conservative buyers used to more standard styling. 

 

In England in the 1920s and 30s, what became known as the Airline design practice popularly retained recognizable radiators, grilles and front-end elements of marques like Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Bentley, Jaguar, and even Singer and MG, while the designers streamlined, rounded and tapered the cars at the rear. The front-end visages remained largely the same, but from the rear, these free-flowing bodies appeared quite modern. Good examples include the Mercedes-Benz Autobahn-Kurier and the Delage D8-120S. The Mercedes-Benz 540K’s haughty grille was retained with all its baroque opulence, while from the windscreen to the rear, the body is curved and tapered.

 

The prototype for the Delage Aérosport Coupe offered a bold grille design that appeared windswept, but this conceit was not continued for the resulting small series of production models. The Delage D8-120S by Carrosserie Saoutchik displays the sweeping lines and chrome accents the flashy, Russian-born Paris-based coachbuilder preferred, but this coupe’s fascinating parallel doors were not a common D8 accouterment. A witty saying in France in the Art Deco era was that “one is driven in a Rolls-Royce, one buys a Bugatti for one’s mistress, but one drives a Delage.” 

Edsel Ford, the only son of the auto magnate Henry Ford, was the consummate car enthusiast. Although he could have purchased any sporting automobile in the early 1930s and did own a Bugatti Type 37A, he ordered the Ford Motor Company’s styling chief, Eugene T. “Bob” Gregory, to design and build a sleek two-seater, with a race car-inspired, streamlined body, curvaceous cycle fenders, an alligator hood, and the latest Ford flathead V-8, fitted with straight exhausts. 

 

Edsel’s natty sports two-seater was constructed by skilled workers at Ford’s aircraft facility, using sheet aluminum panels hand-formed into a pleasing shape that echoed the best racing car practice of that era. He hoped his smart-looking Continental-style roadster could become a limited-production model, but Henry Ford, his puritanical and eminently practical father, would have none of it. Despite rumors to the contrary, fueled because period photos of the Model 40 show it with two different hood treatments, only one example was built. Fully restored, after having been hidden for years, the Model 40 Speedster is a glimpse of what might have been. Edsel’s own hot rod remains a triumph of minimalist Art Deco styling.

 

In contrast, Gabriel Voisin’s automobiles often defied description, as the French so often follow their own distinct path in design. Voisin’s success as an aircraft builder helped underwrite his forays into automobile design. His cars borrowed techniques and styling touches from aircraft practice: angular shapes, dihedral struts to firmly attach fenders to fuselages, skirted fenders that aped airplane wheel pants, crank-out windscreens, sling-back seats and more. 

 

Bold interiors like the one in the Voisin C27 coupe were a riot of geometric Art Deco patterns. Instrument panels borrowed their dial shapes and instrument typefaces from prevailing Deco design examples. Even in their day, Voisin’s cars stood apart, and his insistence on using complex Knight sleeve-valve technology perversely meant that while his power plants were virtually silent, they left a noxious haze of blue smoke in their wake.

 

Streamline cars from Czechoslovakia’s Tatra represented a different approach. Named for the nearby Tatra mountain range, and the third oldest carmaker in the world behind Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot, Tatra built uniquely engineered automobiles until 1999, then switched to building just trucks. Tatra’s engineers were Hans Ledwinka, who had his own unique approach to nearly every challenge, and Edmund Rumpler, a pioneer designer of aerodynamic cars. Protected by high tariffs in Czechoslovakia, Ledwinka began building Tatra sedans with air-cooled, rear-mounted V-8 engines. 

 

In 1934, Tatra obtained a license from the aerodynamicist and Graf Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray to build the Type 77, a full-sized fastback and the world’s first truly aerodynamic car. Wind tunnel tests of a model showed its coefficient of drag was 0.24. The actual car’s was 0.36, well below 0.54 for most cars of that period. The Volkswagen Beetle resembles the V750 Tatra, which preceded it. Ledwinka’s aerodynamic little 1936 Tatra T97 had a rear-mounted, air-cooled four-cylinder boxer-type engine, a central structural tunnel floor-pan, rear-wheel-drive, four seats and a front luggage compartment. The VW Beetle’s similarity sparked a lawsuit by Ledwinka against Volkswagen and its designer, Ferdinand Porsche. When the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, the suit was dropped; after the war, it was re-initiated and VW had to pay a $3 million settlement.

 

Parisian carrosiers Claude Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi were by practice, and as expressed in their own advertisements, the “Couturiers of the Automobile.” Their ateliers handcrafted automobiles that truly resembled Parisian couture on wheels. Voluptuous shapes, fully skirted front fenders, dramatic speed line themes repeated in several places, low windscreens and rooflines, long hoods, selfish (single-person) cabins, teardrop motifs—all contributed to the unique appearance of a Figoni and Falaschi dream car. The coachbuilders impressed attendees at the 1936 Paris Auto Show with their first presentation of a custom Delahaye. French fashion enthusiasts pioneered the creation of the Concours d’Elegance, really a closely judged fashion show for fine automobiles, each accompanied and accented by a beautifully dressed woman whose designer ensemble was color-coordinated and themed to complement the car.

 

Figoni-built classics dominated these Concours exhibitions with their audacious, often impractical, but memorable designs, usually built on an expensive sporting chassis from topline marques like Delahaye, Delage and Talbot-Lago. It was as if a beautiful gymnast had been fashionably dressed by a top couturier like Coco Chanel. The underpinnings of these stunning cars were full competition variants, while their sleek aluminum skins were exquisitely molded, painted in bright hues or glittering piano black, then accentuated with delicate kisses of polished alloy and discreet chrome trim. Bespoke Delahaye 135M/135MS coupes and roadsters displayed a multitude of these variations—beautiful then, beautiful now. Nothing like them has been built since.

The Type 57C Bugatti, a perfect example of life imitating art, was a gift from the French government to Prince Reza Pahlavi, the future Shah of Iran, upon the occasion of his first wedding, to an Egyptian princess. While the design is reminiscent of the house of Figoni, the unique coachwork, featuring a functional roll down windscreen, was created by Vanvooren, another Parisian coachbuilding establishment. The Prince’s supercharged Bugatti, one of the top sporting cars of its day, was equipped with a race-inspired, 3.3-liter twin-cam straight 8 engine. Typically, the alloy surfaces under the hood would be engine-turned (or damascened) with a scroll or wave pattern, itself an Art Deco conceit. 

 

In the 1930s, it was commonly believed that the teardrop was the perfect aerodynamic shape, so it became a repeated Art Deco design theme. The T-150C-SS Talbot-Lago is one of a limited series of expensive custom coachwork exercises on high-performance chassis. Wealthy buyers could specify individual touches, such as faired in or free-standing headlamps, sunroofs, long or short tails, vestigial fins, hood louvers, and all manner of fancy interior fabrics and special hides. As if these limited-production custom cars weren’t unique enough, the carrossiers would entertain client suggestions of color selections, accessories, fitted luggage, disc or wire wheels, standard or pre-selector gearboxes, and other personalized choices. 

 

The Last American Deco Cars

The Chrysler Thunderbolt, created and shown just before World War II, is both a continuation of 1930s-era Art Deco themes seen in the Scarab and a modern view of where cars would be heading in the postwar period: slab sides, a pancake hood, hidden headlights, minimal decoration, horizontal trim elements evoking speed and progress—all signaling the car of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the Thunderbolt, and its companion four-door phaeton, the Newport, were limited in production, partly by cost and partly because the American automobile industry would soon be gearing up to become a major part of “The Arsenal of Democracy,” the collective efforts of American industry in supporting the Allies.

By 1939, when the world sadly resumed the horrific battle that had ended with the Armistice in 1918, automobiles, in Mark McCourt’s words, “. . . had transcended pure function and become the ultimate personal accessories, desirable for their design as much as for their speed, luxury and practicality . . . [speaking] volumes about their owners’ tastes and their parent company’s engineering bravado. And in 1946, when automobile production resumed after World War II, the world was in a different place, with a new sense of the awesome (as well as awful) power of machines. Automobile design would soon take a different path, leaving the glorious Art Deco cars and (styling) cues of this late interwar period unique and forever celebrated.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Augusta Savage working on Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp). Photo: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Though many are familiar with the men whose works are now synonymous with this era, fewer know the women whose works were just as revolutionary. 

 

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, and Selma Burke were formally educated artists whose aesthetic was shaped by the Afrocentrist ethos of the Harlem Renaissance and who exhibited their works in New York during that time. The careers and reach of these women contributed to the shaping of a long Black arts movement before and beyond the formal period known as the Harlem Renaissance.

 

The sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller began her career in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Fuller’s early career predates the Harlem Renaissance, her artistic influence is foundational to many artists identified with that time. She was born in Philadelphia in 1877, and unlike many African Americans of the nineteenth century, Fuller was raised in a successful middle-class family of entrepreneurs who nurtured and encouraged her artistic talents. She studied dance, attended art classes, and frequently visited the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was one of the few African Americans selected to attend the J. Liberty Tadd Art School in a program for gifted and talented students.

 

While still a teenager, Fuller exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. As a result of an honorable mention at the Exposition, she was awarded a scholarship to study at what is now the Philadelphia College of Art. For her senior project she created a thirty-seven-foot bas-relief, Procession of the Arts and Crafts.

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Ethiopia, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, c. 1921.  Photo: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 220

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, In Memory of Mary Turner: As a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, 1919.  Photo: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 220

For her senior project she created a thirty-seven-foot bas-relief, Procession of the Arts and Crafts. In 1899 she traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. Her career flourished under the influence of the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With a readership of 100,000, the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, articulated the organization’s ethos to a wide range of subscribers and exposed them to the work of artists and writers. Fuller first met Du Bois in Paris in 1900 when he was organizing the exhibition on Black American culture at the American Pavilion of the Paris Exposition. To help promote her career, he included her in the exhibition. He believed all art was propaganda that could be used to uplift the Black race, making it the role of the artist to create positive imagery that would inspire and lead to social uplift. World’s fairs allowed the Black community to set the record straight and let global audiences interested in the fair know of their contributions. 

In Paris, Fuller met the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who also became a mentor. Her work became more introspective and emotive, and her style became associated with the Symbolist movement. 

The literary work of Edgar Allan Poe and Sigmund Freud also influenced her use of imagination and ability to create a feeling of unease. She designed works that led the French press to call her “the delicate sculptor of horrors.”

Upon her return from Paris, she once again enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy to study ceramics with the portraitist Charles Gadfly. For the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, Du Bois chose Fuller to create a sculpture to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, making her the first African American woman to receive a federal commission. Unlike Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Memorial sculpture that centers on Abraham Lincoln, with an enslaved person kneeling at his feet, Fuller’s Emancipation Proclamation shows three figures emerging: one is downtrodden, another stands tall and proud, and the last is depicted taking a step forward. 

 

In addition to Du Bois’s influence, Fuller’s politically active family and Dr. Alain Locke, Rhodes Scholar and Harvard-educated philosopher, informed her work. Locke called on African American artists to look to Africa to create positive imagery, believing that exposure to African art would encourage them to reclaim their cultural heritage. He contended that this would create a new style with the same impact Modernism had on European avant-garde artists, and he understood that the visual arts were a potent vehicle to counter derogatory stereotypes of Black people. With these influences, Fuller’s art became increasingly more culturally representative and political. In 1919 she sculpted an homage to Mary Turner titled Mary Turner (A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence). The previous year, a distraught and pregnant Turner had tried to stop the lynching of her husband. The white mob hung her by her feet, cut her baby from her womb, and stomped on it. These vicious deaths galvanized the African American community nationwide and set off a series of silent protests led in New York City by Marcus Garvey and the organization that he founded, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Through the use of closed form, a bowed head, and a face obscured by shadow, Fuller rendered the figure of Turner fittingly mute—a metaphor for the silent UNIA march, and for the silencing of her people by means of mass murder and brutality.

Her most recognizable work, Ethiopia Awakening (The Awakening of Ethiopia), has been on display at various times at the 135th Street branch library in Harlem, (now Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.) The life-size bronze depicts a female mummy with her wrappings unwinding, as if coming out of bondage, the face of Ethiopia tilted slightly upward, symbolizing that African Americans have awoken from their slumber and are ready to move forward. 

 

In the 1920s Fuller continued to be a cultural force, participating as both a juror and an exhibitor in the Harmon Foundation’s periodic juried exhibitions, from 1927 through 1935, at the 135th Street branch library. Founded in 1922 by the philanthropist William E. Harmon, the foundation fostered appreciation and created awareness of African American artists and their work. The Harmon Foundation’s exhibitions traveled the United States, giving national exposure to African American artists who otherwise would not have had a venue to exhibit. The artists won cash prizes and medals in such categories as painting, sculpture, and drawing. Today, Fuller’s sculptures are recognized as possessing deliberate Afrocentric and political qualities that embody the Harlem Renaissance philosophy of the New Negro: the concept that one would stand up, be outspoken, demand equality, and combat negative stereotypes of Black people.

One of the most influential and important artists of the Harlem Renaissance was the sculptor, arts administrator, and cultural activist Augusta Savage. She was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, in 1892, the seventh of fourteen children. An artistic child, she began making sculpture from natural materials around her, such as abundant red clay. Unlike Fuller, Augusta Savage was discouraged and severely disciplined for making “graven images” that her evangelical father considered sinful.

Perhaps to get away from her parents, as a teenager she married and started a family. The marriage was cut short by her husband’s sudden death, which forced Augusta to move back home. In high school her talent was rewarded when she was offered a salary to teach clay modeling. After remarrying, she began studies at Tallahassee State Normal School (now Florida A&M University).

 

In 1919 Savage’s sculptures were exhibited at the West Palm Beach County Fair, where she won a blue ribbon. Impressed by her talent, the fair’s superintendent, George Graham Currie, gave her a letter of introduction to his friend, the noted frontier sculptor Solon Borglum, and encouraged her to move to New York City to pursue her dream of studying art. Divorced, she arrived in New York in 1921 with the letter and less than five dollars. Since the artist was talented but broke, Borglum suggested she enroll in Cooper Union, the merit-based institution, where her talent propelled her through the undergraduate program in only three years. 

 

Degree in hand and living in Harlem, Savage was surrounded by writers and poets, among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. For artists, New York was a desirable place where their work could easily be created and seen. But it was in Harlem, a city within a city, that African American artists could congregate as a community, a circle of creatives working toward affirming themselves as a viable group of artists and scholars.  Savage began to receive commissions to create busts of prominent African American figures, including Du Bois, Garvey, and the diplomat and writer James Weldon Johnson. 

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Selma Burke, posing with a bronze plaque of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she completed shortly after his death on April 12, 1945. Photo: National Museum of the U.S.

In 1923 Savage earned a scholarship to study in France at Fontainebleau, but the award was rescinded once the selection committee learned she was Black. Crushed but determined, Savage embarked on an aggressive letter-writing campaign to appeal the committee’s decision. Although she encountered a multitude of setbacks, she continued to exhibit with the Harmon Foundation in New York, in Baltimore, and in Philadelphia at the Sesquicentennial celebration. In keeping with New Negro philosophy encouraged by Alain Locke, Savage created sculptures of neighborhood residents and family members celebrating African American physiognomy, while simultaneously dismantling negative stereotypes of Black people. One of her most notable sculptures was Gamin, a bust of her nephew as a street urchin, sculpted with full lips, a mischievous smile, and a tilted cap. The work won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (one of the most important sources of funding for Black visual artists in the 1930s and 40s), and a Carnegie grant, enabling her to study in Paris with Félix Beauneteaux at the Grande Chaumière and with French sculptor Charles Despiau. In Paris she hit her stride, and successfully exhibited A Woman of Martinique, an untitled nude at the Salon d’Automne, and African Figure at the Société des Artistes Français.

 

Upon her triumphant return to Harlem, Savage established and managed several art schools to share what she had learned in Paris, fulfilling a need for art classes in the community. Students included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Morgan and Marvin Smith. She exhibited Gamin, Laughing Boy, and Woman of Martinique at the Spring Salon, Anderson Gallery, and the Tenth Annual exhibition of the Salons of America, and Realization at the Architectural League. She co-managed the Uptown Art Laboratory and opened her own art school, the Studio of Arts and Crafts. 

 

Savage collaborated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Harmon Foundation to open the Harlem Art Workshop in the 135th Street branch library. Her popular classes outgrew that space and moved to a townhouse at 306 West 141st Street, known simply as “306.” It operated like a think tank where noted African American writers and artists gathered to discuss issues and concerns affecting Black communities. Contributing to these robust discussions were the writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Countee Cullen. In 1934, she was the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now the National Association of Women Artists). Recognizing the success of her students and the management of her art schools, the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) funded her move to a larger space, allowing her to open and become the Director of the Harlem Community Art Center. The Center enrolled 1,500 students and became the model for WPA art programs nationwide. Savage taught and trained the next generation of leading African American artists, often hiring her former students as teachers. 

 

In 1935 Savage co-founded the Harlem Artists Guild with the artists Charles Alston and Norman Lewis. The Guild addressed the concerns of Black artists and fought for jobs and assignments in the FAP, which the Artists’ Union—a New York City organization that influenced job assignments in the FAP—had not been extending to Black artists. 

 

In 1939 Savage opened the first Black-owned and operated commercial art gallery in the United States, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, representing established artists including Richmond Barthe, Meta Fuller, Selma Burke, and Beauford Delaney. Her gallery survived for only a season, but she fulfilled yet another dream and contributed to her community. 

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Augusta Savage, Gamin, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, c. 1929. Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Benjamin and Olya Margolin

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Selma Burke, untitled portrait head. Photo: Peter A. Juley & Son, Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1937 she was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York—the crowning achievement of her career. She created her most notable work, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp.) The theme was taken from a poem written by James Weldon Johnson that was set to music by his brother, the composer J. Rosamond Johnson, and known as the “Negro National Anthem.” The design of the ambitious 16-foot plaster sculpture took the form of a huge harp “With human figures of varying heights not unlike the strings of a harp. At the front of the composition was a male figure kneeling on one knee with arms extended holding a scroll at each end. On this scroll were the words,  ‘lift every voice and sing.’” Without funds to preserve it, the work was bulldozed during the dismantling of the fair.

 

After building a viable art career, teaching thousands of students, and mentoring several successful artists, Savage faced a string of disappointments. She was replaced as the Director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, and when funding from the FAP ended, so did her support. In the 1940s she moved to Saugerties, New York, where she worked as an assistant to a cancer researcher. Savage continued to sculpt, although she had few commissions, and taught art to children in summer camps.

 

Another noted artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Selma Burke, was born in 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. Like many other African American families during the period, hers left the South and settled in Philadelphia. Burke’s father was a well-traveled chef who worked on international ocean liners, and her uncles were missionaries in Africa who sent African art home to her. She grew up with these objects and, as a result, had an appreciation and knowledge of African cultures. Although she grew up surrounded by African art and showed an early talent for art-making, she was encouraged to become a nurse by her mother. After high school, Burke attended Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia (now Drexel College of Medicine), earning a degree in nursing. She gained employment as a private nurse to a wealthy heiress and traveled extensively with her, regularly attending the opera and other cultural events that further exposed her to the arts and privileged circles. 

 

In 1935 Burke moved to New York to pursue her dream of being a sculptor. She studied with Augusta Savage at the Harlem Community Art Center. She also joined the Harlem Art Guild and in 1936 won a Rosenwald Foundation grant and a scholarship to attend Columbia University. After graduating with her MFA, she traveled to Europe to study with the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Viennese ceramicist Michael Powolny. She returned to teach sculpting at the Harlem Community Art Center and began exhibiting her work. Along with Savage and other artists, she showed at the Downtown Gallery, founded by the visionary collector Edith Halpert, on East 51st Street. Burke also became romantically involved with the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, who introduced her to his circle of literary friends including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. 

 

Burke excelled at creating portrait busts of famous Americans. Her sculptures of the 1930s are classically-styled figures enlivened by bold, sensuous forms. In 1945 she entered a national contest and won the commission to create a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 10-cent coin.

Burke’s design is credited as the model for the engraver John R. Sinnocks’s famed profile that made it onto the dime. The President did sittings for over two years while Burke perfected his image. Her portrait of Roosevelt was displayed at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington. 

 

In 1949, after McKay’s death, Burke married the architect Herman Kobbe, and they settled in Pennsylvania, where she opened an art school modeled after Augusta Savage’s Harlem Community Art Center. Savage’s mentoring of Burke and exposing her to the Harlem art community were invaluable to her career. 

 

These three artists—Fuller, Savage, and Burke—faded from public view in the postwar decades. Burke retired to small-town Pennsylvania; Savage moved to upstate New York, and Fuller wound down her career in Massachusetts. Yet today we recognize their prominence in Harlem’s Black cultural renaissance of the early twentieth century: they shaped not only the sculptural mediums in which they worked, but also perceptions of the American artist at home and abroad.

About the Author:

Ken Gross has authored 24 books on automobiles and is the former Executive Director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. His 13 critically acclaimed Art Deco and streamlined car exhibitions have appeared at major fine art museums nationwide. He is a 31-year Chief Class Judge Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and a member of its Selection Committee. He  curates rare marques, historic racing cars, and historic hot rod classes.

 

A founding member of the International Chief Judges’ Advisory Group, Gross judges at many North American and European concours. He has received  the Automotive Hall of Fame Distinguished Service Citation, the International Motor Press Association’s Ken W. Purdy Award, the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Bachelor Award and the Lee Iacocca Award.

 

Sources: 

•Barrie Down, Art Deco and British Car Design: The Airline Cars of the 1930s, Veloce Publishing, Ltd., Poundbury, Dorchester, Dorset, England, 2010.

•Donald J. Bush, The Streamlined Decade; George Brazilier, New York, 1975.

•Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, A Century of Automotive Style, Lamm-Morada Publishing Company, Inc. Stockton, California., 1996.

•Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood, Art Deco, 1910–1939, Bulfinch Press, Boston, New York, London, 2003. 

•“Art Deco and the Automobile,” by Mark J. McCourt, Hemmings Classic Car, December 2012.

•Ken W. Purdy, The Kings of the Road, Atlantic: Little, Brown & Company, Boston, 1949.

•Michael Zumbrunn and Robert Cumberford, Auto Legends: Classics of Style and Design; London and New York, Merrill Publishers, 2004. 

•Jonathan Stein, editor; Curves of Steel: Streamlined Automobile Design at the Phoenix Art Museum, Philadelphia: Coachbuilt Press, 2007.  

 

All Photos: © Peter Harholdt

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 6, Issue 1, Winter 2021. View a digital version of the full journal here.