January 1991

Edwin A. Harleston

Artist

Edwin A. Harleston

Edwin A. Harleston was one of the most distinguished artists and civil rights leaders of his generation. Born in 1882 in Charleston, South Carolina, he graduated from Avery Institute in 1900 and Atlanta University in 1904. He studied at Howard University with the intention of becoming a physician; but, instead set his sights on art. From 1906-1912 he attended the School Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1913, he returned to Charleston to help with the family funeral business. He soon became an active artist, businessman, and civil rights leader. Harleston founded the Charleston NAACP in 1916 and was successful in its efforts toward educational reform for Black schools, teachers and principals. He was a firm believer in civil rights for all Americans. By the 1920’s Harleston’s reputation as an artist had flourished. An active participant in the Harlem Renaissance, he received portrait commissions from all over the United States. Even though his primary mode of art was portraiture, his work also showed the people and culture of the era. In 1931, he joined the Harmon Foundation at International House in New York. The House had presented the first all Black exhibition in the United States. Harleston created sensitive humanistic portraits of mostly African-American civic leaders, businessmen, and their families. He always captured the strength and depth of his subjects’ personalities. The Gibbes Museum and Art Gallery and the Avery Institute in his native Charleston co-hosted an exhibition of his work, Edwin Harleston: Painter of An Era, on the 101st anniversary of his birth. Among the portraits displayed was his painting of Aaron Douglas, one of the most significant African-American artists of the 20th century. This portrait was purchased by the Gibbes Museum. Many of Harleston’s famous works, including “Mending Sock” and “The Old Servant” are in anthologies of African-American Art. This outstanding public servant died in 1931 at the age of 49.