In 1937, a group of prominent African-American doctors, lawyers, and businessmen formed the Pyramid Club for the “cultural, civic and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia.”1 Among them was Lewis Tanner Moore, an attorney and the nephew of Henry O. Tanner (1859–1937), a distinguished alumnus of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). From its outset the Pyramid Club had a close working relationship with the Academy, which was founded in 1805 by Charles Willson Peale and a group of artistic and civic-minded business leaders “to promote the cultivation of the Fine Arts,” in Philadelphia. During the years that annual exhibitions at the two institutions overlapped, 1941 to 1957, there was a surprising amount of exchange. The Academy alumni, faculty, administrators, and exhibitors contributed to the artistic life of the Pyramid Club, increasing its prestige in the community and the art world. At the same time, the Pyramid Club’s members and the national artists they attracted gently urged the Academy to more strongly represent African-American artists in its annuals and in the permanent collection. Both institutions benefited immeasurably from the exchange, and although the Pyramid Club is no longer in existence, The Academy’s art collections are stronger today as a result.

Fig. 1: Humbert Howard (1915–1990)
The Yellow Cup, 1949–1950
Oil on canvas, 24 x 32-1/8 inches
John Lambert Fund, 1951.8

Three years after its founding, Pyramid Club members purchased a building about a mile from the Academy, at 1517 Girard Avenue. They renovated the space to accommodate a wide range of social and cultural events, which included hosting celebrities such as poet Langston Hughes, jazz icon Duke Ellington, beloved singer Marian Anderson, and NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White. The following year, 1941, the Pyramid Club inaugurated its annual art exhibition to increase opportunities for African-American artists. The exhibitions grew in stature and continued until 1957 when there was a change in leadership. A solo exhibit in 1959 of William Tasker’s work was the last. The Academy’s faculty and administrators supported the Pyramid Club during the heyday by exhibiting there, speaking at their events, and increasing the number of African-American artists who exhibited at the Academy and had their artwork acquired for the museum’s permanent collections.

Fig. 2: Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937)
Nicodemus, 1899
Oil on canvas, 33-11/16 x 39-1/2 inches
Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1900.1

From their inception, the Pyramid Club annuals were managed by Humbert Howard (1905–1990), a gregarious and talented painter whose circle of contacts extended beyond Philadelphia to include such nationally known artists as Romare Bearden (1911–1988), Charles Alston (1907–1977), and Hale Woodruff (1900–1980). Despite the express goal of increasing opportunity for African-American artists, from their inception in 1941, the exhibitions also included white artists who sympathetically portrayed black subjects. This changed in 1945 when the Pyramid Club specified that artists would be chosen by merit, not by race or subject matter. Howard, an integrationist, believed that inclusiveness would attract broader patronage, garner the attention of the media, and encourage sales and further exhibitions for African-American artists. This strategy proved successful but was not without hazard. In 1949, Howard was roundly criticized for what was perceived in the exhibition as a gross imbalance of white to black artists. An unidentified critic in the Philadelphia Afro-American reported “Criticism of this year’s show came from colored artists and patrons. They pointed out that many of the white artists in the exhibition are members of galleries that discriminate against colored painters.”2   Howard vigorously defended the practice in the March issue of the same paper, stating that art should be judged on its merits not by the race of its maker and declaring that the presence of “prominent white artists gave ‘prestige’ to the show.”3

Fig. 3: Hobson Pittman (1899 or 1900–1972)
Morning Paper, No. 2, 1952–1953
Oil on masonite, 13-1/16 x 26-1/8 inches
John Lambert Fund, 1953.19

Howard earned the respect of the arts community and his career developed handsomely during his years of leadership of the Pyramid Club art programs. His own work became decidedly modernist as a result of his exposure to the art and artists at the club, as demonstrated by The Yellow Cup (Fig. 1).  This brightly colored painting was exhibited in the Academy’s annual in 1951 and purchased for the permanent collection.  In a letter to the Academy’s director Joseph T. Fraser, Howard wrote, “[The Yellow Cup] represents my best work and the honor of its purchase shall always be my cherished memory.”4 Fraser was invited to be the Pyramid Club’s guest speaker in 1953 and again in 1955 on the occasion of the Academy’s 150th anniversary. The Pyramid Club also marked the occasion by exhibiting a group of Academy collection artworks that included Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Nicodemus (Fig. 2) and Howard’s The Yellow Cup. Howard became a regular exhibitor at the Academy annuals between 1951 and 1969, and in 1952 his work was the subject of a solo exhibition in the Academy’s Pennsylvania Artists Gallery.

A number of prominent Academy faculty exhibited at the Pyramid Club during the 1940s and 1950s, among them, Morris Blackburn (1902–1979), Julius Bloch (1888–1966), Hobson Pittman (1899/1890–1972), Francis Speight (1896–1989), and Franklin C. Watkins (1894–1972).5 Their participation in the Pyramid Club annuals added luster and attracted new patrons to the works of the African-American artists on view.  Pittman was recognized for his psychologically charged interiors, noteworthy for their study of light and human presence despite the absence of figures (Fig. 3). Speight was a landscape painter who was particularly adept at painting urban scenes around greater Philadelphia (Fig. 4), and for capturing the transformation of former farmland into industrial production, often seen from a bird’s-eye perspective. Blackburn was an experimental artist who pushed both the Pyramid Club and, as a faculty member at PAFA, the Academy to explore abstraction and color modernism. His lively canvases, such as Appalachian Spring I (Fig. 5), demonstrated his knowledge of European art ranging from Kandinsky to Picasso, and in this instance was inspired by the experimental music of Aaron Copland.

Fig. 4: Francis Speight (1896–1989)
Highland Avenue, Manyunk, 1956
Oil on canvas, 20-1/16 x 26 inches
Gift of James P. and Ruth Marshall Magill, 1957.15.31

Fig. 5: Morris Blackburn (1902–1979)
Appalachian Spring I, 1946–1947
Oil on canvas, 24-1/2 x 32-1/8 inches
Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1987.33

Fig. 7: Horace Pippin (1888–1946)
John Brown Going to His Hanging, 1942
Oil on canvas, 24-1/8 x 30-1/4 inches
John Lambert Fund, 1943.11

Julius Bloch was an exhibitor at the Academy from 1913 to 1964; he taught painting from 1947 to 1962. He was especially active at the Pyramid Club, reflecting the Social Realist style that dated from the 1930s. Bloch exhibited actively in the Pyramid Club annuals from their inception in 1941, reflecting the Club’s early inclusion of white artists who painted dignified portrayals of African-Americans.  In 1944, Bloch was the first white artist to have a solo show at the Pyramid Club and exhibited politically charged scenes, urban genre paintings, heroic workers, still lifes, and portraits, among them, his profile portrait of Horace Pippin (1888–1946), the self-taught African-American painter (Fig. 6).The portrait was exhibited the following year in the Academy’s annual exhibition and later bequeathed to the institution. Honored with a solo exhibition in the Academy’s Pennsylvania Artist’s Gallery in 1948, at least five of the paintings in that show had first appeared in the Pyramid Club’s 1944 solo exhibition.

Pippin’s work was also exhibited both at the Academy and the Pyramid Club, and his compelling painting John Brown Going to His Hanging (Fig. 7) was purchased by the Academy in 1943 from its annual exhibition. Brown’s bound, black-cloaked figure rides in a horse-drawn cart, while onlookers witness the spectacle. Barren oak trees add to the wintry scene and ominously evoke the
gallows where Brown is soon to be hanged.  According to family legend, the woman in the foreground who turns away from the scene, represents Pippin’s grandmother, linking the artist directly to the momentous scene and the struggle for emancipation. Pippin was notable among mid-century African-American artists because he earned gallery representation with Robert Carlen, a successful dealer in Philadelphia, and with Edith Halpert, whose Downtown Gallery in New York exhibited such leading modernists as Stuart Davis and Ben Shahn.

Fig. 6: Julius T. Bloch (1888–1966)
Horace Pippin, 1943
Oil on canvas, 24 x 20-1/16 inches
Bequest of the artist in memory of Emma and Nathan Bloch, 1967.8.2
Fig. 8: Paul Keene Jr. (b. 1920)
Haitian Chicken Vendor, 1953
Encaustic on cardboard, 21-1/4 x 11 inches
Gift of Benjamin D. Bernstein, 1959.10.2

The Pyramid Club helped to launch the careers of several young African-American artists, and the Academy advanced their promising starts. Paul Keene (b. 1920) first exhibited at the Pyramid Club in 1943, showing a timely work entitled War Talk. Keene, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1941 to 1945, was the featured artist at the 1953 Pyramid Club annual. That year the critic Dorothy Grafly noted that honoring Keene “points up the growing stature of one of the city’s outstanding young painters,” commenting on his “rich feeling for barbaric color and design.”6 Those expressionistic qualities are evident in his Haitian Chicken Vendor (Fig. 8), exhibited at the Academy in 1953 and later donated to the museum’s permanent collection.

Another young painter nurtured by both the Academy and the Pyramid Club was Louis Sloan (b. 1932). While still a student at the Academy, his painting Backyards (Fig. 9) was accepted into the permanent collection as a gift from a patron. Sloan’s urban scene, depicting light falling on buildings, reflects the influence of his teachers — Hobson Pittman and Francis Speight — who encouraged Sloan. The younger artist went on to become a nurturing teacher at the Academy, retiring in 1997.

Fig. 9: Louis B. Sloan (b. 1932)
Backyards, 1955
Oil on canvas, 44 x 36 inches
Gift of Louis G. Sunstein, 1955.8.3
Fig. 10: Richmond Barthé (1901–1989)
Julius, about 1940
Bronze, cast in 1943, 8-3/4 x 6-1/4 x 7-1/4 inches
Henry D. Gilpin Fund, 1943.2
Fig. 11: Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
Dream Series #5: The Library, 1967
Tempera on board, 24 x 35-7/8 inches
Purchased with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Collectors’ Circle,
and the Henry D. Gilpin and John Lambert Funds, 1987.34
Fig. 12: Romare Bearden (1911–1988)
Folk Musicians, 1941–1942
Gouache on paper, 35-1/2 x 45-1/2 inches
Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis
Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
Family, 1983
From Lawrence's Hiroshima series.
Tempera and gouache on paper
23 x 17-1/2 inches
Alexander Harrison Fund, 2008.3.2

In 1982, Sidney Shiff, owner of the Limited Editions Club, New York, commissioned Lawrence to make illustrations for a book of his choice. Lawrence selected Hiroshima (1946), John Hersey’s extraordinary account of six survivors of the first atomic bomb attack. The result was a set of eight paintings inspired by — but which transcend — Hersey’s text that rank among Lawrence’s most powerful visual statements.

In addition to fostering local talent, the Academy and the Pyramid Club introduced numerous artists of national renown to Philadelphia audiences. Among the most important African-American artists shown at both venues were the sculptor Richmond Barthé (1901–1989) and painters such as Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) and Romare Bearden (1911–1988). Barthé was one of three sculptors featured by the Pyramid Club in 1943, and also exhibited that year in the Academy’s annual. His submission, Julius (Fig. 10), was commissioned by the modernist photographer, critic, and collector Carl Van Vechten, who promoted many of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The portrait is of Van Vechten’s housekeeper’s five-year-old nephew. Despite the sitter’s youth and the small size of the sculpture, it captures Barthé’s interest in the “spiritual quality behind the eyes.”7 Barthé’s Julius was among the works lent as part of the Pyramid Club’s tribute to the Academy’s 150th anniversary.

Jacob Lawrence’s success made him an ideal exemplar of the Pyramid Club’s desire to have African-American artists judged by their merits instead of their race. His scenes of everyday life, painted in a Cubist-informed figurative style, earned him wide acclaim in his early twenties. They were published in national magazines, exhibited at Edith Halpert’s prestigious Downtown Gallery, and collected by major museums. His Dream Series #5: The Library (Fig. 11) depicts his personal indebtedness to the Harlem Public Library, where he researched historical subjects for his dream series and other paintings, and at the same time conveys a more universal message about the power of education within the American democracy to lift people up to greater opportunities.

Romare Bearden, another renowned African-American artist, was active at the Pyramid Club and also occasionally exhibited at the Academy. In 1947 he showed his paintings at the Pyramid Club’s annual and penned an essay, “Why the Pyramid Club is Open to All,” in which he argued against the limitations of single-race exhibitions. Bearden returned as guest speaker in 1949, and the Pyramid Club recognized him as their honored artist in 1956.  Bearden was also an occasional exhibitor at the Academy, showing The Year’s Grain and Epigenia in 1954. The expressively exaggerated facial features and size of the hands in Folk Musicians (Fig. 12) are characteristics of Bearden’s work in the early 1940s. The overall effect is a somber but powerful evocation of a group of musicians set against a brick building in a desolate landscape. Bearden revisited this theme in the collages that secured his position as one of the most important American modernists.

The Pyramid Club was dissolved in 1963 because of disputes among the leadership and the movement of many prominent African-American families to the suburbs. The Academy’s annual exhibitions were discontinued in 1969, but PAFA continues to thrive and its collections continue to reflect its rich relationship with the Pyramid Club.

David R. Brigham  is President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.


This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2008 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine. AFA is affiliated with Incollect.