Madeleine Harrison

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Madeleine Harrison

PhD student

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2 Jun

Supervised by Professor David Peters Corbett and Dr Jo Applin

Prospective thesis title: ‘Aaron Douglas’ ‘Art Era,’ 1925-37′

Funded by the Consortium for the Humanities and the Arts in South-East England (2018-2020)

My research project examines the development of Aaron Douglas’ characteristic visual language across the twelve years he lived in Harlem. Douglas created many of his most widely recognised works across this period, having refined his signature modes of description during its first few years. My project offers a close reading of the frequent and often dramatic stylistic changes observable in Douglas’ work, and seeks to understand the refined eclecticism of his mature idiom in the context of contemporary debates around respectability and representation. Douglas wrote on several occasions of his desire to create an ‘art era,’ which he described as ‘specifically black,’ ‘not white art painted black,’ and a departure from the work of other young African American artists who he described as ‘interested in representing us as white, physically and culturally.’ Douglas characterised this ‘art era’ as a movement, or an entire canon, that foregrounded African American artists, writers and theorists, intervening in a structurally racist cultural economy and creating platforms for unrestrained creative expression.

My research reads Douglas’ process of stylistic experimentation throughout the 1920s, and its eventual resolution in the 1930s, as manifestations of Douglas’ investment in the inception of a visual language that initiated this ‘art era’ by distilling and mapping African American history, culture and contemporary life as he saw them. My project therefore considers Douglas’ intent and the usability and function of his artworks, as well as the ways in which Douglas’ visual strategy contributed to, and can develop our understanding of, the shifting discourses around culture, history and resistance in inter-war Harlem. It considers art’s contested nature in this fertile and conflictual period, and how an acknowledgement of tentativeness can reveal the contours of an artist’s practice.

My work also assesses historiography. Douglas has been constructed in scholarship as a paternal, straightforwardly inspirational and optimistic artist: my project seeks to evaluate this characterisation, questioning art history’s expectations for African American artists and the broader criteria for the arts of protest and resistance.


MA History of Art, with special option ‘New York-London-Paris 1880-1940,’ The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2016-17 (Distinction)

BA (Hons) History of Art, University of Bristol, 2012-15 (First Class Honours)

Awards, grants and fellowships

CHASE; Doctoral Studentship, 2018-20

Terra Foundation for American Art; Immersion Semesters Fellowship at Harvard University, Spring 2019

Terra Foundation for American Art; Research Travel Grant to the United States, 2018-19



Conferences and workshops

‘FIRE!! Magazine and the Visualisation of Cultural Conflict’ – ‘New Voices 2018: Art and Conflict,’ Association for Art History, University of Edinburgh, November 9 2018.

‘Isabel Bishop, Experience and Fantasy’ – ‘Experience and American Art,’ The Courtauld Institute of Art, organised by Professor David Peters Corbett and Professor Alexander Nemerov (Stanford University), March 23-24 2018.

‘Aaron Douglas and Frantz Fanon’ – CHASE School of American Visual Arts and Texts PhD Workshop, Eccles Centre, British Library, February 26 2018.

”The People who are Trivial Outside:’ Isabel Bishop, Homosocial Fantasy and Class Spectatorship, 1930-1940′ – ‘Chasing America,’ CHASE School of American Visual Arts and Texts, Courtauld Institute of Art, December 9 2017.

Research interests

Aaron Douglas

Inter-war North American painting and photography

National self-fashioning in North American art

The canon

The politics of public display

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