How famed painter Edwin Harleston used his portraits to challenge systemic prejudice against Blacks

Stephen Nartey February 16, 2023
Edwin Harleston. Photo: The New York Public Library Digital Collections

The journey of African-American painter Edwin Harleston began when he married photographer Elise Forrest in 1920. His wife shaped a long-held pursuit of rewriting the narrative about African Americans.

Harleston decided to tell the stories of the accomplishments of African Americans using the portrait technique, according to the African American Registry. Soon, he became one of the most astounding Black painters reputed for his portraits. His work showcased influential Black businessmen, civic leaders and their families.

Many of his works during World War I eulogized the role of African-American soldiers, their sacrifices, patriotism and bravery at the frontline. His painting titled Oudia picked the coveted NAACP’s 1925 Amy Spingarn Prize, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.

Some of his notable portraits included the President of Atlanta University, Edward Twitchell Ware, industrialist and philanthropist Pierre Samuel DuPont as well as the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois.

The Charleston Museum took stock of Harleston’s portraits of South Carolina congressman Thomas Miller and the premier artist of the “New Negro” movement of the 1920s, Aaron Douglas.

Harleston was so good at his art that in 1930 he was invited to Nashville at the instance of Douglas to paint murals in the new library at Fisk University.

He finished the murals in 1931, the very same year he passed away. Before Harleston’s death, he was awarded the Alain Locke Prize for portrait painting for his work titled The Old Servant at an exhibition of the Harmon Foundation. Some of his memorable portraits also include “The Charleston Shrimp Man,” “The Honey Man,” and “The Old Servant” which dwelled on the authentic African American cultural heritage.

Harleston was born in 1882 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was one of the eight children of his parents. His father was a rice planter turned sea captain and later a mortician. In 1900, Harleston graduated valedictorian from the Avery Normal Institute in Charleston. He later went to Atlanta University where he played soccer and was part of a quartet.

He moved to Boston and enrolled at the art school of the Boston Museum of Fine Art. He understudied William Paxton and Frank Benson until 1913. He spent a brief period managing his father’s funeral home in South Carolina. While doing this work, he was also involved in the civil rights movement and at some point rose to become the president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP. He led campaigns to compel the public school system to employ Black teachers.

Harleston passed away on May 10, 1932, in Charleston. He was buried in the Harleston plot of the Unity and Friendship Cemetery.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 16, 2023


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