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Places of cycling: Augusta Savage, not just another American in Paris

Words by Paul Maunder w/images from Getty Images

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Wedged into a narrow street between the Cimetiére Montparnasse, dotted with the graves of famous writers and artists, and the genteel avenues of Le Jardin du Luxembourg, lies the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere. The academy is an art school, founded in 1904 and named for the street on which it resides. It is still there today, offering workshops and life drawing classes. From the beginning, its focus was painting and sculpture, and it promised students the freedom to work outside of the academic rules of painting espoused by the more formal École des Beaux-Arts (an institution that was a collective of French art schools). It also promised the lowest fees in Paris.

Photo by Bettmann Archive via Getty Images.

It was to this modest, but influential, building that Augusta Savage came in 1929. Savage was 37 when she came to study in Paris and was already an established sculptor. She was not, however, just another American artist indulging in the Parisian dream. The road from Jacksonville, Florida, where she was born in 1892, to France had been fraught with challenges. After brushing off the discouragement of her Methodist minister father, Savage set about developing her practice as a sculptor, learning her craft at high school, taking commissions, and exhibiting where she could. Unable to afford bronze, she modeled in clay. In 1921 she moved to New York to study at the Cooper Union under the sculptor George Brewster. This was only possible because she won a scholarship ahead of 142 male competitors.

In 1923, halfway through her degree program, Savage applied for a summer art school at the Fontainebleau School of Fine Arts, just outside Paris. Her application was accepted, then the American judging panel discovered she was black and withdrew the offer. Savage fought the decision vehemently, to no avail. The episode awakened the activist within her. For the rest of her life, Savage was a vocal advocate for equal rights for African Americans in the arts.

Savage’s work, and her cause, became a focal point for activism and fundraising. Combining two sources of funding – philanthropic foundations such as the Rosenwald Foundation, and grassroots women’s organizations in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and back home in Florida – Savage finally made her Paris trip in 1929. The two years she spent at the Académie de la Grande Chaumiere were a success. She won two awards, exhibited at the Paris Salon, and toured neighboring countries.

Augusta Savage, whose sculptural group, “Life Every Voice and Sing,” had attracted much attention among the Contemporary Arts exhibits at the New York World’s Fair, presents to Grover A. Whalen, President of the Fair Corporation, a miniature of the piece. Photo by Bettmann Archive via Getty Images.

Returning to New York in 1931 Savage continued to work and exhibit. As much a teacher of art as a student, she set up the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem, which later transformed into the successful Harlem Community Art Center. She was awarded a commission for the 1939 World’s Fair, for which she created the sculpture Lift Every Voice and Sing, which inspired the song of the same name. Her 16-foot plaster sculpture based on the design of a harp proved to be one of the most popular pieces of art at the fair.

Eventually, the toll of struggling to make art pay became too much. In 1945 Savage stopped making sculptures and moved to rural upstate New York, in Saugerties, close to the Hudson River. There she ran a smallholding and worked at a nearby corporation. She could not stay away from sculpture for very long; in her new country home, she continued to cast models of friends and acquaintances.

By the time of her death in 1962, Savage’s artistic career had been forgotten. Yet she was a trailblazer, a change-maker, a teacher, and above all she was committed to her art. She did not look for conflict but did not shy away from fighting inequality, and her struggle helped successive generations of African American artists in the United States. In 2019 an exhibition at the New York Historical Society celebrated her life and achievements. It will surely not be the last.