Born: February 29, 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida
Died: March 27, 1962 in New York, New York
Famous works: Lift Every Voice and Sing, Gamin, Realization, John Henry
Style/Period: Harlem Renaissance, Sculpture
Augusta Savage was an African-American sculptor who played a major role in the Harlem Renaissance and fighting for equality for Black artists in the 1920s and 1930s. She wanted to depict Black people in a more neutral and humane way and fought against the stereotypical art of the day.
Childhood and Early Life
Augusta Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida on February 29, 1892. Her birth name was Augusta Christine Fells (she would later take the last name "Savage" from her second husband). She grew up in a poor family and was the seventh of fourteen children.
Augusta discovered as a child that she enjoyed making small sculptures and had a real talent for art. To make her sculptures she used red clay that she found around the area where she lived. Her father, a Methodist minister, did not approve of Augusta's sculptures and discouraged her from pursuing art as a career.
When Augusta was in high school, her teachers recognized her artistic talent. They encouraged her to study art and to work on her skills as an artist. When the school principal hired her to teach a clay-modeling class, Augusta discovered a love for teaching others that would continue throughout her life.
Early Art Career and Education
Augusta's first real success in the art world came when she displayed some of her sculptures at the West Palm Beach County Fair. She won a $25 prize and a ribbon of honor for her work. This success spurred Augusta on and gave her hope she could succeed in the art world.
In 1921, Savage moved to New York to attend the Cooper Union School of Art. She arrived in New York with very little to her name, just a letter of recommendation and $4.60. However, Augusta was a strong woman with great ambition to succeed. She quickly found a job and began to work on her studies.
After graduating from Cooper Union, Augusta lived in a small apartment in New York. She worked at a steam laundry to help pay her bills and support her family. She also continued to work as an independent artist out of her apartment.
During this time in New York, the Harlem Renaissance was gaining momentum. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement centered out of Harlem, New York. It celebrated African-American culture, art, and literature. Augusta Savage helped to play a significant role in the advancement of African-American art throughout much of the Harlem Renaissance.
Augusta's reputation as a sculptor grew during the 1920s as she completed several busts of prominent people including W.E.B Dubois, Marcus Garvey, and William Pickens, Sr. She also sculpted her most famous work during this time, Gamin. Gamin earned Augusta a scholarship to study art in Paris.
Savage returned to New York from Paris during the Great Depression. Although she found it difficult to find paying work as a sculptor, she continued to complete some work including a bust of abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Augusta spent much of her time teaching others about art at the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts. She became a leader in the African-American art community and helped other Black artists gain funding through the federal government's WPA Federal Art Project.
Gamin is probably Savage's most famous work. The boy's expression somehow captures a wisdom that only comes through hardship. Gamin is a French word that means "Street Urchin." It may have been inspired by a homeless boy on the street or modeled after Savage's nephew.
Gamin by Augusta Savage
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Lift Every Voice and Sing (also called "The Harp") was commissioned by the 1939 New York World's Fair. It displays several Black singers as strings of the harp. They are then held by the hand of God. The original was 16 feet high and was one of the most photographed objects at the World's Fair. It was unfortunately destroyed after the fair ended.
Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp) by Augusta Savage
Source: 1939 World's Fair Committee
Interesting Facts About Augusta Savage
A lot of her work was in clay or plaster. Unfortunately, she did not have the funds for metal castings, so many of these works have not survived.
She was turned down for a summer art program sponsored by the French government because she was Black.
She was married three times and had one daughter.
She spent her later life living in a farmhouse in Saugerties, New York where she taught art to children, wrote children's stories, and worked as a lab assistant in a cancer research facility.
While living in Paris she exhibited her art twice at the prestigious Paris Salon.