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Augusta Savage
Augusta Savage, H-HNE-20-87.jpg
Augusta Savage
Augusta Christine Fells

(1892-02-29)February 29, 1892
Died March 27, 1962(1962-03-27) (aged 70)
New York
Nationality American
Education Cooper Union, Académie de la Grande Chaumière
Known for Sculpture
Notable work
W.E.B Dubois
Lift Every Voice and Sing
Movement Harlem Renaissance
Spouse(s) John T. Moore
James Savage
Robert L. Poston
Patron(s) Teachers from Florida A&M,
Julius Rosenwald Fund

Augusta Savage (born Augusta Christine Fells; February 29, 1892 – March 27, 1962) was an American sculptor associated with the Harlem Renaissance. She was also a teacher whose studio was important to the careers of a generation of artists who would become nationally known. She worked for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.

Early life

Augusta Christine Fells was born in flordia (near Jacksonville), Florida, on February 29, 1892, to Edward Fells, a Methodist minister, and Cornelia Murphy. Augusta began making figures as a child, mostly small animals out of the natural red clay of her hometown. Her father was a poor Methodist minister who strongly opposed his daughter's early interest in art. "My father licked me four or five times a week," Savage once recalled, "and almost whipped all the art out of me." This was because he believed her sculpture to be a sinful practice, due to his interpretation of the "graven images" portion of the Bible. She persevered, and the principal of her new high school in West Palm Beach, where her family relocated in 1915, encouraged her talent and allowed her to teach a clay modeling class. This began a lifelong commitment to teaching, as well as to creating art.

In 1907, at the age of 15, Augusta Fells married John T. Moore; the two had a daughter, Irene Connie Moore, who was born the following year. John died shortly thereafter. In 1915, after moving to West Palm Beach, she met and married James Savage; she retained the name Savage throughout her life, even after the two divorced in the early 1920s. In 1923, Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, a protégé of Garvey. Poston died of pneumonia aboard a ship while returning from Liberia as part of a Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League delegation in 1924.

Education and early career

Savage continued to model clay, and in 1919 was granted a booth at the Palm Beach County Fair where she was awarded a $25 prize and ribbon for most original exhibit. Following this success, she sought commissions for work in Jacksonville, Florida, before departing for New York City in 1921. She arrived with a letter of recommendation from the Palm Beach County Fair official George Graham Currie for sculptor Solon Borglum and $4.60. When Borglum discovered that she could not afford tuition at the School of American Sculpture, he encouraged her to apply to Cooper Union, a scholarship-based school, in New York City where she was admitted in October 1921. She was selected before 142 other men on the waiting list. Her talent and ability impressed the Cooper Union Advisory Council and she was awarded additional funds for room and board after losing the financial support of her job as an apartment caretaker. From 1921 through 1923, she studied under sculptor George Brewster. She completed the four-year degree course in three years.

After completing studies at Cooper Union, Savage worked in Manhattan steam laundries to support herself and her family. Her father had been paralyzed by a stroke, and the family's home destroyed by a hurricane. Her family from Florida moved into her small West 137th Street apartment. During this time, she obtained her first commission from the New York Public Library on West 135th Street, a bust of W. E. B. Du Bois. Her outstanding sculpture brought more commissions, including one for a bust of Marcus Garvey. Her bust of William Pickens Sr., a key figure in the NAACP, earned praise for depicting an African American in a more humane, neutral way as opposed to stereotypes of the time, as did many of her works.

In the spring of 1923, Savage applied for a summer art program at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts in France. She was accepted, however upon finding out that she was black, the American selection committee rescinded the acceptance offer, fearing that the fellow white students would be uncomfortable working alongside a black woman. Savage was deeply upset and questioned the committee, beginning the first of many public fights for equal rights in her life by writing a letter to the New York World. Though appeals were made to the French government to reinstate the award, they had no effect and Savage was unable to study at the school. The incident got press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, and eventually, the sole supportive committee member sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil – who at one time had shared a studio with African-American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner – invited her to study with him. She later cited him as one of her teachers.

In 1923, Savage married Robert Lincoln Poston, a protégé of Garvey. Poston died of pneumonia aboard a ship while returning from Liberia as part of a Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League delegation in 1924. In 1925, Savage won a scholarship with the help of W.E.B DuBois to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. This scholarship only covered tuition, and after being unable to raise money for travel and living expenses, she was unable to attend.

Savage won the Otto Kahn Prize in a 1928 exhibition at The Harmon Foundation with her submission Head of a Negro.

In 1929, with the help of pooled resources from the Urban League, Rosenwald Foundation, a Carnegie Foundation grant, and donations from friends and former teachers, Savage was able to travel to France, at age 37. With assistance from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Savage was able to enroll and attend the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, a leading Paris art school. Savage was able to settle into an apartment in Montparnasse and work in the studio of [Félix] Benneteau[-Desgrois], a professor at the school. While the studio was initially encouraging of her work, Savage later wrote that "...the masters are not in sympathy as they all have their own definite ideas and usually wish their pupils to follow their particular method..." and began primarily working on her own in 1930. In Paris, she also studied with the sculptor Charles Despiau. She exhibited, and twice won awards, at the Paris Salon and at one Exposition. She toured France, Belgium, and Germany, researching sculpture in cathedrals and museums.

Later career and teaching

Savage returned to the United States in 1931, energized from her studies and achievements. The Great Depression had almost stopped art sales. She pushed on, and in 1934 became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She launched the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts, located in a basement on West 143rd Street in Harlem, with the help of a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. She opened her studio to anyone who wanted to paint, draw, or sculpt. Her many young students included the future nationally known artists of Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Gwendolyn Knight. Another student was the sociologist Kenneth B. Clark, whose later research contributed to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled school segregation unconstitutional. In 1937, Savage became the director of the Harlem Community Art Center; 1,500 people of all ages and abilities participated in her workshops, learning from her multi-cultural staff, and showing work around New York City. Funds from the Works Progress Administration helped, but old struggles of discrimination were revived between Savage and WPA officials who objected to her having a leadership role.

Savage was one of four women and only two African Americans to receive a professional commission from the Board of Design to be included in the 1939 New York World's Fair. Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture showcasing the impact that Black people have had on music. She created Lift Every Voice and Sing (also known as "The Harp"), inspired by the song by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture stood in front of the Contemporary Arts Building and was one of the most popular and most photographed work at the fair; small metal souvenir copies were sold, and many postcards of the piece were purchased. The work reinterpreted the musical instrument by featuring 12 singing African-American youth in graduated heights as its strings, with the harp's sounding board transformed into an arm and a hand. In the front, a kneeling young man offered music in his hands. Savage did not have funds to have the piece cast in bronze or to move and store it, and so like other temporary installations, the sculpture was destroyed at the close of the fair.

Augusta Savage working on a sculpture

Savage opened two galleries whose shows were well attended and well reviewed, but few sales resulted and the galleries closed. The last major showing of her work occurred in 1939. Deeply depressed by her financial struggle, Savage moved to a farmhouse in Saugerties, New York, in 1945. While in Saugerties, she established close ties with her neighbors and welcomed family and friends from New York City to her rural home. Savage cultivated a garden and sold pigeons, chickens, and eggs. The K-B Products Corporation, the world's largest growers of mushrooms at that time, employed Savage as a laboratory assistant in the company's cancer research facility. She acquired a car and learned to drive to enable her commute. Herman K. Knaust, director of the laboratory, encouraged Savage to pursue her artistic career and provided her with art supplies. Though her art production slowed down, Savage taught art to children in summer camps and sculpted friends and tourists, and explored writing children's stories. Her last commissioned work was for Knaust and was that of the American journalist and author Poultney Bigelow, whose father, John, was U.S. Minister to France during the Civil War. Her few neighbors said that she was always making something with her hands.

Much of her work is in clay or plaster, as she could not often afford bronze. One of her most famous busts is titled Gamin which is on permanent display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.; a life-sized version is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. At the time of its creation, Gamin, which is modeled after a Harlem youth, was voted most popular in an exhibition of over 200 works by black artists. Her style can be described as realistic, expressive, and sensitive. Though her art and influence within the art community are documented, the location of much of her work is unknown.

Savage moved in with her daughter, Irene, in New York City when her health started to decline, she later died of cancer on March 26, 1962. While she died in relative obscurity, Savage is remembered today as a great artist, activist, and arts educator; serving as an inspiration to the many that she taught, helped, and encouraged.


The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, a Baltimore, Maryland, public high school, is named in her honor.

In 2001 her home and studio in Saugerties, New York, were listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places as the Augusta Savage House and Studio. It is the most significant surviving site associated with the productive life of this renowned artist, teacher, and activist. Her home has been restored to evoke the period when she lived there, and serves to interpret her life and creative vision.

In 2007, the City of Green Cove Springs, Florida, nominated her to the Florida Artist Hall of Fame; she was inducted the Spring of 2008. Today, at the actual location of her birth, there is a Community Center named in her honor.

A biography of Savage intended for younger readers has been written by Alan Schroeder. In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage was released in September 2009 by Lee and Low, a New York publishing company.

The papers of Savage are available at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library.


Individual exhibitions

  • Grande Chaumière, Paris, 1929
  • Salon d'Automne, Paris, 1930
  • Argent Galleries, New York and Art Anderson Gallery, New York, 1932
  • Argent Galleries, New York and New York World's Fair, 1939
  • New York Public Library, 1988

Selected group exhibitions

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Augusta Savage para niños

Black History Month on Kiddle
Contemporary African-American Artists:
Janet Taylor Pickett
Synthia Saint James
Howardena Pindell
Faith Ringgold
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