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Artist Profile: 5 Things To Know About Hale Woodruff

/ Exhibitions

Image from the High Museum of Art
Image from the High Museum of Art

Since June, hundreds of people from all over the city, state, and region have visited the BMA’s summer exhibition Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College to view the stunning and massive murals. Commissioned by Talladega College in 1938, the vibrant murals, recognized as the first representations of the Amistad mutiny in the twentieth century, hung in Talladega’s Savery Library before going on a national tour.

The paintings have earned great renown, but have you learned about the man behind the murals? Here are five things to know about the artist Hale Woodruff:

  1. Woodruff was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee but began his art training in the Midwest at the age of twenty.
    Though Woodruff achieved success early on with his landscape paintings at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis, the School’s traditional approach frustrated Woodruff. After three years at the Herron School, he decided to continue his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago but returned to Indianapolis shortly thereafter. There, he served as membership secretary of the local YMCA, where he was introduced to the ideas of a number of black leaders and activists.
  2. In 1927, using earnings from his previous awards and with the help of donations, Woodruff traveled to Paris, France, where he studied the styles of Old Masters and European modernists.
    Woodruff did not gravitate towards the modernist style, but he adopted many distinctively Post-Impressionist and Cubist techniques. In fact, several of his works from his time in France strongly resemble those of Cézanne.
  3. Hale Woodruff’s style changed direction upon his return to the American South, which he described as “[his] country.”
    When Woodruff returned to the States, he settled in Atlanta, where he began teaching in the new art department at Atlanta University. When he was creating his own work, Woodruff began to move away from the Post-Impressionist style he adopted in France in favor of more conventional techniques. Also, though he had portrayed African Americans in some of his paintings before, Woodruff shifted his focus to black communities in Atlanta, specifically. His depictions proved powerful displays of the poverty that plagued many of those areas, and he would continue to deal with black subjects and themes throughout his career.
  4. Diego Riviera, known for his public murals, greatly influenced Woodruff’s own works.
    During his trip to Mexico in 1936 to work with the famous muralist, Woodruff began to incorporate Riviera’s storytelling approach into his own work. Furthermore, though Woodruff never utilized Riviera’s fresco technique completely, he would use many fresco-like methods in his later paintings.
  5. When Talladega College President Buell Gallagher assigned Woodruff the task of depicting the Amistad mutiny, Woodruff was unfamiliar with the event, whose history was largely forgotten during the era of Reconstruction.
    After learning from Riviera the importance of storytelling, Woodruff, determined to shed light on “racial injustice, past and present,” embraced the topic. He traveled to New Haven, Connecticut, the site of the Africans’ trial. Informed by this research and influenced by the styles of Cézanne and Picasso, he embarked on creating the famous murals on display at the BMA today.

Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College is open to the public through September 6 with free admission. Do not miss the opportunity to welcome these incredible works back to their home state!

Heydt, Stephanie Mayer. “Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College.” Rising Up: Hale Woodruff’s Murals at Talladega College. Ed. Linda Merrill. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 2012. 26-97. Print.

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