Augusta Savage

1892Green Cove Springs, United States | 1962New York, United States
Augusta Savage — AWARE Women artists / Femmes artistes

© Photo: Carl Van Vechten, National Archives at College Park

American sculptress.

Determined to become a sculptress, Augusta Christine Fells arrived in New York in 1921 with 5 dollars in hand. Alongside her job as an apartment caretaker, she completed the art course at Cooper Union in 3 years. The New York public library commissioned her to produce a bust of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, the first in a series of leading African-American figures, such as black nationalist Marcus Garvey. These meetings were to have a strong impact on the artist, who became a formidable activist. Her first feat occurred in 1923. Excluded from a study programme in France due to the colour of her skin, she confronted the admissions committee, becoming the first African-American woman to defy the art world. Despite social and economic difficulties, she continued to sculpt, including plaster busts such as Gamin (1930), her most well-known work, which represents a Harlem street boy and which portrays the beauty of African-Americans, previously appearing in the form of racist caricatures. Her success was such that she was awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship, allowing her to finally go to Paris, where she studied at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière with sculptor Félix Benneteau-Desgrois.

Augusta Savage received a medal from the French government for her African figures reproduced as medallions and presented at the Colonial Exhibition in 1931. Once back in New York, she became the first African-American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She was fully committed to Harlem artistic and political life, creating the Studio Arts & Crafts, the Harlem Art Workshop, and the Vanguard Club, with the aim of promoting awareness and encouraging talent, and finding solutions to the social problems of blacks in America. Her last commission carried out for the New York fair, Lift Every Voice and Sing, was a great success, but she was not awarded the prize. Unable to pay for the transport of her work, she was forced to destroy it. Weary of these setbacks, in the early 1940s she retreated to a farm near Woodstock and was to remain distant from the art world for the rest of her life. Having dedicated her work to the fight for civil rights, to the detriment and even peril of her own artistic career, Augusta Savage is today a legend of the Renaissance of Harlem.

Sonia Recasens

Translated from French by Anna Knight.

From the Dictionnaire universel des créatrices
© 2013 Des femmes – Antoinette Fouque
© Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
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