Charles White

Charles White 1918-1979

Charles W. White is an artist that inspires me. Born in Chicago in 1918, White is known for his black & white or sepia & white drawings, lithographs, paintings and draftsmanship. His works are powerful depictions of African-American life and struggle.

White’s meticulously executed drawings and paintings speak of and affirm the humanity and beauty of African American people and culture. He was one of America’s most renowned African-American & Social Realist artists, covering subject matter of African-American history in the United States, socio-economic struggles, and human relationships.

White’s images of the African American experience are held in the collections of Atlanta University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University, the Whitney Museum, the Library of Congress, the Joseph H. Hirschhorn Collection, and the American Federation of the Arts, as well as museums in Mexico, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, South America, China, and the Soviet Union.

White expressed an interest in art at an early age. His mother bought him an oil painting set when he was 7, and from there he was hooked. The kit, however, got his art career off to a bumpy start. The first time he used it; his mother was not at home. Unfamiliar with the turpentine and linseed oil, included in the kit, he poured the linseed oil into the paint. Naturally, this ran all over everything, creating a big mess.  White had also never seen a canvas; however, he had a vague idea that it had at least a texture he associated with window shades. With that in mind, he took a couple of his mother’s shades down and painted on them. His mother returned home, and although his art career officially began with a good spanking, he was not deterred from his art ambitions.

On another day, while hanging out at a park near his house, he saw an art class in progress. The students were painting landscapes, so he carefully watched them all day long. Overhearing them say that they would be there all week, he ran to the park everyday after school to see how they mixed the paints and colors, and also to learn how they used the linseed oil and turpentine. And then he would go home and try to duplicate what he had seen. That week was his first art lesson.

Art became the most important thing in White’s life, and he drew everything in sight, including his Chicago neighborhood with the dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn streets. He also attended local art lectures and programs, and at 14, even became a professional sign painter. Increasingly frustrated with the way that black people were portrayed in his high school textbooks, he frequently skipped classes to study alone in the library, and visit exhibitions. Eventually he won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, and experimented with lithography.  He made his first lithograph at the age of 17, and fell in love with the printing process.

White joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and was commissioned, in 1940, to paint his first mural, on the history of the Black press. He was 22 years old. He married Elizabeth Catlett, a well-educated and accomplished sculptor the following year, and through receiving a Rosenwald grant, was able to tour the South and sketch. These sketches became the basis for a mural that he completed over a 9-month period about African-American history.

White moved away from stylized depictions of human features, and became an expert capturer of human emotion and expression.  His Rosenwald grant was renewed enabling him to paint one of his best known works, “The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy,” a mural at Hampton University depicting a number of notable blacks including Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, George Washington Carver and others.  The mural was profiled by the New York Times in 1943 and brought White great recognition in his mid-twenties.

White was drafted into the Army in 1944, where he developed tuberculosis while building sandbag dikes to fight Mississippi River flooding.  He struggled for several years with lung and chest problems, requiring surgeries, however, this did not stop his work, and he exhibited a one-man show at the American Contemporary Artists Gallery in 1947.

He exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1952 and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1953. His work was purchased by the Whitney Museum, and he also published his first portfolio of lithographs in 1953. He received an award from Atlanta University award in 1953 and the John Hay Whitney award in 1955.

Though he was enjoying critical and popular success in New York, White’s work could not break all the boundaries of racism in America during the era. His work was included in an exhibition of black artists at the University of Alabama, but the artists were not allowed to attend. The Delgado Museum in New Orleans also purchased one of his paintings, but denied him admission.

White was dedicated to addressing struggles against oppression and social and humanitarian commentary in his work, and was steadfast in his representations of African American people.   At the heart of his work was his need to explore the universal conflicts that plague all humankind. His skilled approach allowed him to cross-racial lines and to be recognized as a true American artist. He died October 3, 1979.

Charles White is an artist that inspires me.