Charles Alston

Charles Alston 1907-1977

Charles Alston is an artist that inspires me. He was a painter, sculptor, muralist, and teacher, and enjoyed certain freedoms that were rare to African-American artists of the time.   Born in 1907, into a prominent Charlotte, North Carolina family; he led a privileged lifestyle and attended Columbia University in 1925.

Alston experimented widely with subject matter and styles, but never developed one identifiable style. In spite of his unique approach to creating artwork, he was widely recognized and highly esteemed for his skill. Alston became the first African-American supervisor of a Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA), when he was assigned management of the Harlem Hospital Mural Project. It was here that he and a staff of 35 artists and assistants created the epic mural on the development of medicine, featuring several African American innovators in medicine, as well as an African “witch doctor.”

Two of the hospital’s leaders objected to the mural’s proposed sketches because “there were too many blacks” in them. Dr. Louis T. Wright, the first African American physician to serve on the hospital’s staff, addressed those objections head on. Using his own financial and social resources, he drew enough attention to his colleagues’ objections that the community rallied behind the project, and the artists were allowed to proceed. Master artists who worked on murals included Georgette Seabrooke, muralist Vertis Hayes, Sicilian-American fresco painter Alfred Crimi; assistants included modernist painter Beauford Delaney, and photographer Morgan Smith.

In the 1930s Alston met John Hammond, a fellow jazz lover, and was inspired to develop a series of paintings about blues singers and jazz scenes.

Following a surprising draft into the Army infantry at age 36, Alston became disillusioned as a fine artist and decided to focus on commercial work. He worked for leading publications such as Fortune, Collier’s, and others and earned a comfortable living, however, he longed to return to the fine art world, and transitioned back. His decision was rewarded as one of his paintings was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1950. That year Alston also became the first African-American to be invited as an instructor by the Art Students League.

Alston’s success continued in the 1950s as he exhibited at the John Heller Gallery in New York; the Whitney Museum and other institutions collected his work. During the same time, he was awarded a fellowship grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and completed murals for the Abraham Lincoln School in Brooklyn and the American Museum of Natural History.

The Civil Rights movement inspired Alston to paint many works dealing with social issues and protest. His bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, commissioned by the Community Church of New York In 1990, became the first image of an African-American to be displayed in the White House.

Alston Charles Alston continued to enjoy a successful career until his health declined with cancer, and he passed away in 1977.