About the Artist
Norman Lewis was an Abstract Expressionist painter, scholar and teacher, who used his art and his teaching to focus on black urban life and his community’s struggles.
Early Life and Education
Norman Lewis was born in Harlem in 1909. His parents emigrated from Bermuda to Harlem. Lewis’ father was a dock foreman, his mother a housekeeper. Lewis was the middle child of three boys. His older brother was an accomplished violinist who played with Count Basie and other bands, but found it difficult to earn a living as a musician and became a detective.
Lewis attended Public School during a time when Harlem was a predominantly white neighborhood, with a large Irish, Italian and Jewish population.
He was interested in art as early as nine years of age, but his father discouraged this pursuit, saying it was a difficult way to earn a living, although he encouraged his oldest son to pursue his musical career.
In high school, Lewis studied drawing and commercial design, largely on his own, from commercial art books.
At the age of twenty, Lewis got a job as a seaman, working on freighters that traveled around South America and the Caribbean. After three years at sea, he returned to Harlem and got a job as a garment presser in a tailor shop.
The tailor shop was in the same building that sculptor Augusta Savage had a basement studio. Savage was a pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance and opened her studio to any artist who wanted to practice their craft. It was also a place where black artists and writers found support and camaraderie. Lewis became one of the founders of the Harlem Artists Guild, that fostered opportunities for African-American artists.
He rented his own studio, and supported himself by gambling; playing pool, poker and racetrack betting.
Lewis’ first major exhibition was in 1934 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he received an honorable mention for his painting titled The Wanderer (Johnny).
Savage encouraged Lewis to study at Columbia University. He taught at the Harlem Community Arts Center and, in 1936, he began working for the Works Progress Administration of the Federal Arts Projects teaching art classes. In 1943 he taught at the George Washington Carver School and painted in the Social Realism style.
In the mid-1940s, Lewis began to experiment with Abstract Expressionism. The prestigious Willard Gallery in New York hosted his first solo exhibit in 1949. The gallery continued to represent him for fifteen years.
He was awarded an NEA grant, a Mark Rothko Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, but was excluded from many exhibitions, as were many other black and female artists. Lewis taught at the Art Students League from 1972, until his death in 1979.
In 1975, Lewis married his long-time girlfriend, Ouida Bramwell. He died unexpectedly in 1979 at the age of 70, in New York City.
In 2014 ,the Jewish Museum in New York exhibited Norman Lewis’ work alongside Lee Krasner’s, whose work was overshadowed by that of her husband, Jackson Pollock.
In 2015, the first comprehensive museum overview of Norman Lewis’ work was on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The paintings of Norman Lewis are part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Blanton Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art and many others.