Charles White: An Artist for Humanity's Sake

By Von Blum, Paul | Journal of Pan African Studies, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Charles White: An Artist for Humanity's Sake

Von Blum, Paul, Journal of Pan African Studies

Charles White (1918-1979) was one of the finest American artists of the mid 20th century and a giant figure in African American art history. Throughout his distinguished career, he combined outstanding technical skill as a painter and printmaker with a lifelong commitment to chronicling the hopes and struggles of the African American population. His artworks celebrated African American heroes as well as ordinary women and men struggling to maintain dignity in a racist society. He achieved major national and international acclaim even in an era where abstract expressionism dominated the mainstream art world and where African American artists were, as usual, consigned to the margins of critical recognition in galleries, art journals, newspapers and magazines, and colleges and universities.

In an interview in 1940, he offered his artistic vision that characterized the social and moral outlook that pervaded his entire artist career:

   I am interested in the social, even the propagandistic angle of
   painting...that will say what I have to say. Paint is the only
   weapon I have with which to fight what I resent. If I could write,
   I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it.
   Since I paint, I paint about it.

This outlook informed and solidified his standing in a long line of renowned socially conscious artists, including such luminaries as Francisco Goya, Honore Daumier, Kathe Kollwitz, and the Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose personal political activism and powerful social and historical murals influenced White throughout his artistic career. Likewise, White's artworks revealed the influence of a generation of American Social Realist artists, including Ben Shahn, William Gropper, Phillip Evergood, and many others.

Equally important, his socially conscious vision reflected a major current of African American art history, a strain found in such predecessors as Patrick Reason, Edmonia Lewis, Aaron Douglas, Claude Clarke, Hale Woodruff, and others. Likewise, he displayed and reinforced the social vision of many of his generational contemporaries, including his first wife Elizabeth Catlett, Horace Pippin, Gordon Parks, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Cliff Joseph, John Wilson, John Biggers, and others. He also influenced a younger generation of socially conscious African American artists like Benny Andrews, Faith Ringgold, Dana Chandler, David Hammons, Elliot Pinkney, and scores of others.

White's entry into the art world was scarcely easy. From his early childhood in Chicago, White showed a talent for visual art. But living in an economically precarious situation with his mother's marginal earning's as a domestic and his stepfather's erratic alcoholic behavior; he had few opportunities to pursue his natural talent. Still, he persisted, combining personal will and intellectual curiosity, especially about the neglected history of African American life and culture. Above all, he discovered the contributions of people of African origins--a history conspicuously absent from his own curriculum in Chicago public schools.

The young White established contacts with leading black artists and cultural figures and eventually overcame the entrenched racism of the times to win a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he enhanced his drawing and painting skills and learned various printmaking techniques. This training enabled him to join the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal, where he acquired knowledge of and skills in socially oriented mural painting. This experienced solidified his commitment to the social vision of art that pervaded his entire career.

In 1941, he married Elizabeth Catlett and moved with her to New Orleans, where she was teaching at Dillard University. He was drawn to Southern black life and culture, especially music, which informed his artistic work for the remainder of his life. …

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