Elizabeth Catlett

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Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett.jpg
Elizabeth Catlett, 1986 (photograph by Fern Logan)
Born(1915-04-15)April 15, 1915
Washington, D.C., United States
DiedApril 2, 2012(2012-04-02) (aged 96) [1]
Residence Mexico
Known for Sculpture
Notable work
Students Aspire The Black Woman (1946–47) "Sharecropper,"
Spouse(s) Charles Wilbert White (m. 1941-1946; divorced)
Francisco Mora (painter) (m. 1947-2002; his death)

Elizabeth Catlett (April 15, 1915 [2] – April 2, 2012) [3] was an African-American graphic artist and sculptor best known for her depictions of the African-American experience in the 20th century, which often focused on the female experience. She was born and raised in Washington, D.C. to parents working in education, and was the grandchild of freed slaves. It was difficult for a black woman in this time to pursue a career as a working artist. Catlett devoted much of her career to teaching. However, a fellowship awarded to her in 1946 allowed her to travel to Mexico City, where she worked with the Taller de Gráfica Popular for twenty years and became head of the sculpture department for the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. In the 1950s, her main means of artistic expression shifted from print to sculpture, though she never gave up the former.

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

Washington, D.C. Capital of the United States

Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington or D.C., is the capital of the United States. Founded after the American Revolution as the seat of government of the newly independent country, Washington was named after George Washington, first President of the United States and Founding Father. As the seat of the United States federal government and several international organizations, Washington is an important world political capital. The city is also one of the most visited cities in the world, with more than 20 million tourists annually.

A freedman or freedwoman is a former slave who has been released from slavery, usually by legal means. Historically, slaves were freed either by manumission or emancipation. A fugitive slave is one who escaped slavery by fleeing.


Her work is a mixture of abstract and figurative in the Modernist tradition, with influence from African and Mexican art traditions. According to the artist, the main purpose of her work is to convey social messages rather than pure aesthetics. While not very well known to the general public, her work is heavily studied by art students looking to depict race, gender and class issues. During her lifetime, Catlett received many awards and recognitions, including membership in the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon, and the International Sculpture Center's Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture.

Abstract art art with a degree of independence from visual references in the world

Abstract art uses a visual language of shape, form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world. Western art had been, from the Renaissance up to the middle of the 19th century, underpinned by the logic of perspective and an attempt to reproduce an illusion of visible reality. The arts of cultures other than the European had become accessible and showed alternative ways of describing visual experience to the artist. By the end of the 19th century many artists felt a need to create a new kind of art which would encompass the fundamental changes taking place in technology, science and philosophy. The sources from which individual artists drew their theoretical arguments were diverse, and reflected the social and intellectual preoccupations in all areas of Western culture at that time.

Figurative art art that depicts real object sources

Figurative art, sometimes written as figurativism, describes artwork that is clearly derived from real object sources and so is, by definition, representational. The term is often in contrast to abstract art:

Since the arrival of abstract art the term figurative has been used to refer to any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world.

Mexican art

Mexican art consists of various visual arts that developed over the geographical area now known as Mexico. The development of these arts roughly follows the history of Mexico, divided into the prehispanic Mesoamerican era, the colonial period, with the period after Mexican War of Independence further subdivide. Mexican art is usually filled most of the time with intricate patterns.

Early life

Mother and Child, 1939 Mother and Child.gif
Mother and Child, 1939

Catlett was born and raised in Washington, D.C. [3] [4] Both her mother and father were the children of freed slaves, and her grandmother told her stories about the capture of blacks in Africa and the hardships of plantation life. [4] [5] [6] Catlett was the youngest of three children. Both of her parents worked in education; her mother was a truant officer and her father taught in Tuskegee University, the then D.C. public school system. [2] Her father died before she was born, leaving her mother to hold several jobs to support the household. [2] [4] [6]

Tuskegee University private, historically black university located in Tuskegee, Alabama, USA

Tuskegee University is a private, historically black university (HBCU) located in Tuskegee, Alabama, United States. It was established by Lewis Adams and Booker T. Washington. The campus is designated as the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site by the National Park Service and is the only one in the U.S. to have this designation. The university was home to scientist George Washington Carver and to World War II's Tuskegee Airmen.

Catlett's interest in art began early. As a child she became fascinated by a wood carving of a bird that her father made. In high school, she studied art with a descendant of Frederick Douglass. [5]

Frederick Douglass American social reformer, orator, writer and statesman

Frederick Douglass was an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery in Maryland, he became a national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and New York, gaining note for his oratory and incisive antislavery writings. In his time, he was described by abolitionists as a living counter-example to slaveholders' arguments that slaves lacked the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Northerners at the time found it hard to believe that such a great orator had once been a slave.


Catlett completed her undergraduate studies at Howard University, graduating cum laude, although it was not her first choice. [2] [7] She was also admitted into the Carnegie Institute of Technology but was refused admission when the school discovered she was black. [2] [4] However, in 2007, as Cathy Shannon of E&S Gallery was giving a talk to a youth group at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh, PA, she recounted Catlett's tie to Pittsburgh because of this injustice. An administrator with Carnegie Mellon University was in the audience and heard the story for the first time. She immediately told the story to the school's president, Jared Leigh Cohon, who was unaware of it as well and deeply appalled that such a thing had happened. In 2008, President Cohon presented Catlett with an honorary Doctorate degree and a one-woman show of her art was presented by E&S Gallery at The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. [8] [9]

Howard University university in Washington D.C.

Howard University is a private, federally chartered historically black university (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. It is categorized by the Carnegie Foundation as a research university with higher research activity and is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Carnegie Mellon University private research university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is a private research university based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1900 by Andrew Carnegie as the Carnegie Technical Schools, the university became the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1912 and began granting four-year degrees. In 1967, the Carnegie Institute of Technology merged with the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research to form Carnegie Mellon University. With its main campus located 3 miles (5 km) from Downtown Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon has grown into an international university with over a dozen degree-granting locations in six continents, including campuses in Qatar and Silicon Valley, and more than 20 research partnerships.

August Wilson Center for African American Culture

August Wilson Cultural Center is a U.S. nonprofit arts organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that presents performing and visual arts programs that celebrate the contributions of African Americans not only in Western Pennsylvania, but nationally and internationally.

At Howard University, Catlett's professors included artist Lois Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke. [4] She also came to know artists James Herring, James Wells, and future art historian James A. Porter. [5] [10] Her tuition was paid for by her mother's savings and scholarships that the artist earned, and she graduated with honors in 1937. [1] [2] [3] [4] At the time, the idea of a career as an artist was far-fetched for a black woman, so she completed her undergraduate studies with the aim of being a teacher. [5] After graduation, she moved to her mother's hometown of Durham, NC to teach high school. [2] [5]

Lois Mailou Jones American artist

Loïs Mailou Jones was an influential artist and teacher during her seven-decade career. Jones was one of the most notable figures to attain notoriety for her art while living as a black expatriate in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s. Her career began in textile design before she decided to focus on fine arts. Jones looked towards Africa and the Caribbean and her experiences in life when painting. As a result, her subjects were some of the first paintings by an African-American artist to extend beyond the realm of portraiture. Jones was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement and her countless international trips. Lois Mailou Jones' career was enduring and complex. Her work in designs, paintings, illustrations, and academia made her an exceptional artist that continues to receive national attention and research.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy, which involves rational inquiry into areas that are outside either theology or science. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

James Herring was an American portrait painter.

Because Catlett became interested in the work of landscape artist Grant Wood, she entered the graduate program of the University of Iowa. [2] There, she studied drawing and painting with Wood, as well as sculpture with Harry Edward Stinson. [11] Wood advised her to depict images of what she knew best, so Catlett began sculpting images of African-American women and children. [2] [12] [13] However, despite being accepted to the school, she was not permitted to stay in the dormitories, instead having to rent a room off-campus. [11] One of her roommates was future novelist and poet Margaret Walker. [5] Catlett graduated in 1940, one of three to earn the first masters in fine arts from the university, and the first African-American woman to receive the degree. [1] [3] [11]

In 2006, Kathleen Edwards, the curator of European and American art, visited Catlett in Cuernavaca, Mexico and purchased a group of 27 prints for the University of Iowa Museum of Art (UIMA). [14] Catlett donated this money to the University of Iowa Foundation in order to fund the Elizabeth Catlett Mora Scholarship Fund, which supports African-American and Latino students studying printmaking. [11] Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall on the University of Iowa campus is named in her honor. [15]

After Iowa, Catlett moved to New Orleans to work at Dillard University, spending the summer breaks in Chicago. During her summers, she studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center. [3] [10] [13] In Chicago, she also met her first husband, artist Charles Wilbert White. The couple married in 1941. [3] [5] [16] In 1942, the couple moved to New York, where Catlett taught adult education classes at the George Washington Carver School in Harlem. She also studied lithography at the Art Students League of New York, and received private instruction from Russian sculptor Ossip Zadkine, [3] [10] [13] who urged her to add abstract elements to her figurative work. [2] During her time in New York, she met intellectuals and artists such as Gwendolyn Bennett, W. E. B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, and Paul Robeson. [5] [6]

In 1946, Catlett received a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship to travel with her husband to Mexico and study. [4] [13] She accepted the grant in part because at the time American art was trending toward the abstract while she was interested in art related to social themes. [5] Shortly after moving to Mexico that same year, Catlett divorced White. [16] In 1947, she entered the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a workshop dedicated to prints promoting leftist social causes and education. There she met printmaker and muralist Francisco Mora, whom she married in the same year. [3] [10] [16] The couple had three children, all of whom developed careers in the arts: Francisco in jazz music, Juan Mora Catlett in filmmaking, and David in the visual arts. The last worked as his mother's assistant, performing the heavy aspects of sculpting when she was no longer able. [5] [6] [17] In 1948, she entered the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado "La Esmeralda" to study wood sculpture with José L. Ruíz and ceramic sculpture with Francisco Zúñiga. [3] [13] During this time in Mexico, she became more serious about her art and more dedicated to the work it demanded. [10] She also met Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. [6]


Catlett worked with the Taller until 1966. However, because some of the members were also Communist Party members, and because of her own activism regarding a railroad strike in Mexico City had led to an arrest in 1949, Catlett came under surveillance by the United States Embassy. [2] [16] [18] Eventually, she was barred from entering the United States and declared an "undesirable alien." She was unable to return home to visit her ill mother before she died. [5] In 1962, she renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen. [2] [3] [10]

In 1971, after a letter-writing campaign to the State Department by colleagues and friends, she was issued a special permit to attend an exhibition of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem. [2] [5]

Later years

After retiring from her teaching position at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas, Catlett moved to the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos in 1975. [2] In 1983, she and Mora purchased an apartment in Battery Park City, NY, where the couple spent part of the year from then until Mora's death in 2002. [2] [6] [16] Catlett regained her American citizenship in 2002. [6] [10]

Catlett remained an active artist until her death. [4] [18] The artist died peacefully in her sleep at her studio home in Cuernavaca on April 2, 2012, at the age of 96. [1] [3] She survived by her three sons, ten grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. [2]


Sharecropper, 1952, printed 1970 Sharecropper.jpg
Sharecropper, 1952, printed 1970

Very early in her career, Catlett accepted a Public Works of Art Project assignment with the federal government for unemployed artists during the 1930s. However, she was fired for lack of initiative, very likely due to immaturity. The experience gave her exposure to the socially-themed work of Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias. [5]

Much of her career was spent teaching, as her original intention was to be an art teacher. After receiving her undergraduate degree, her first teaching position was in the Durham, NC school system. However, she became very dissatisfied with the position because black teachers were paid less. Along with Thurgood Marshall, she participated in an unsuccessful campaign to gain equal pay. [10] After graduate school, she accepted a position at Dillard University in New Orleans in the 1940s. There, she arranged a special trip to the Delgado Museum of Art to see the Picasso exhibit. As the museum was closed to blacks at the time, the group went on a day it was closed to the public. [2] She eventually went on to chair the art department. [5] Her next teaching position was with the George Washington Carver School, a community alternative school in Harlem, where she taught art and other cultural subjects to workers enrolled in night classes. [5] Her last major teaching position was with the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), starting in 1958, where she was the first female professor of sculpture. [2] [13] One year later, she was appointed the head of the sculpture department despite protests that she was a woman and a foreigner. [10] [16] She remained with the school until her retirement in 1975. [13]

When she moved to Mexico, Catlett's first work as an artist was with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a famous workshop in Mexico City dedicated to graphic arts promoting leftist political causes, social issues, and education. At the TGP, she and other artists created a series of linoleum cuts featuring prominent black figures, as well as posters, leaflets, illustrations for textbooks, and materials to promote literacy in Mexico. [13] She remained with the workshop for twenty years, leaving in 1966. [13] [19] Her posters of Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and other figures were widely distributed. [2]

Although she had an individual exhibition of her work in 1948 in Washington, D.C., [3] her work did not begin to be shown regularly until the 1960s and 1970s, almost entirely in the United States, [3] [18] where it drew interest because of social movements such as the Black Arts Movement and feminism. [2] [16] While many of these exhibitions were collective, Catlett had over fifty individual exhibitions of her work during her lifetime. [2] [4] Other important individual exhibitions include Escuela Nacional de Arte Pláticas of UNAM in 1962, Museo de Arte Moderno in 1970, Los Angeles in 1971, the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York in 1971, Washington, D.C. in 1972, Howard University in 1972, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, [1] [8] and the 2011 individual show at the Bronx Museum. From 1993 to 2009, her work was regularly on display at the June Kelly Gallery. [1]

Catlett's work can be found in major collections such as those of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, [20] Library of Congress, [20] Minneapolis Institute of Arts, [21] National Museum in Prague, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico, the Instituto Politécnico Nacional, [1] [2] [3] Carnegie Mellon University, [8] the University of Iowa, [11] the June Kelly Gallery and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. [5]

The Legacy Museum, which opened on April 26, 2018, [22] displays and dramatizes the history of slavery and racism in America, and features artwork by Catlett and others. [23]

Awards and recognition

During Catlett's lifetime she received numerous awards and recognitions. [10] These include First Prize at the 1940 American Negro Exposition in Chicago, [20] induction into the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana in 1956, [3] the Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Iowa in 1996, [11] a 1998 50-year traveling retrospective of her work sponsored by the Newberger Museum of Art at Purchase College, [1] [3] a NAACP Image Award in 2009, [18] and a joint tribute after her death held by the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in 2013. [3] Others include an award from the Women's Caucus for Art, the Art Institute of Chicago Legends and Legacy Award, Elizabeth Catlett Week in Berkeley, Elizabeth Catlett Day in Cleveland, honorary citizenship of New Orleans, honorary doctorates from Pace University and Carnegie Mellon, and the International Sculpture Center's Lifetime Achievement Award in contemporary sculpture. The Taller de Gráfica Popular won an international peace prize in part because of her achievements . [6] [10] [13] [8] She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1991. [24]

Art historian Melanie Herzog has called Catlett "the foremost African American woman artist of her generation." [13] By the end of her career, her works, especially her sculptures, sold for tens of thousands of dollars. [5]

Catlett was the subject of an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series An Alternative History of Art, presented by Naomi Beckwith and broadcast on March 6, 2018. [25]


Catlett is recognized primarily for sculpting and print work. [3] Her sculptures are known for being provocative, but her prints are more widely recognized, mostly because of her work with the Taller de Gráfica Popular. [3] [5] Although she never left printmaking, starting in the 1950s, she shifted primarily to sculpture. [16] Her print work consisted mainly of woodcuts and linocuts, while her sculptures were composed of a variety of materials, such as clay, cedar, mahogany, eucalyptus, marble, limestone, onyx, bronze, and Mexican stone (cantera). [2] [10] She often recreated the same piece in several different media. [17] Sculptures ranged in size and scope from small wood figures inches high to others several feet tall to monumental works for public squares and gardens. This latter category includes a 10.5-foot sculpture of Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and a 7.5-foot work depicting Sojourner Truth in Sacramento. [5]

Much of her work is realistic and highly stylized two- or three-dimensional figures, [4] applying the Modernist principles (such as organic abstraction to create a simplified iconography to display human emotions) of Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine to popular and easily recognized imagery. Other major influences include African and pre-Hispanic Mexican art traditions. Her works do not explore individual personalities, not even those of historical figures; instead, they convey abstracted and generalized ideas and feelings. [16] Her imagery arises from a scrupulously honest dialogue with herself on her life and perceptions, and between herself and "the other", that is, contemporary society's beliefs and practices of racism, classism and sexism. [26] Many young artists study her work as a model for themes relating to gender, race and class, but she is relatively unknown to the general public. [18]

Her work revolved around themes such as social injustice, the human condition, historical figures, women and the relationship between mother and child. [16] These themes were specifically related to the African-American experience in the 20th century with some influence from Mexican reality. [1] [2] [10] This focus began while she was at the University of Iowa, where she was encouraged to depict what she knew best. Her thesis was the sculpture Mother and Child (1939), which won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. [12] [13]

Her subjects range from sensitive maternal images to confrontational symbols of Black Power, and portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and writer Phyllis Wheatley, [4] [17] as she believed that art can play a role in the construction of transnational and ethnic identity. [13] Her best-known works depict black women as strong and maternal. [2] [18] The women are voluptuous, with broad hips and shoulders, in positions of power and confidence, often with torsos thrust forward to show attitude. Faces tend to be mask-like, generally upturned. [5] Mother and Child (1939) shows a young woman with very short hair and features similar to that of a Gabon mask. A late work Bather (2009) has a similar subject flexing her triceps. [2] Her linocut series The Black Woman Speaks, is among the first graphic series in Western art to depict the image of the American black woman as a heroic and complex human being. [26] :46 Her work was influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement [3] and the Chicago Black Renaissance in the 1940s and reinforced in the 1960s and 1970s with the influence of the Black Power, Black Arts Movement and feminism. [13] [16] With artists like Lois Jones, she helped to create what critic Freida High Tesfagiorgis called an "Afrofemcentrist" analytic. [20]

The Taller de Gráfica Popular pushed her to adapt her work to reach the broadest possible audience, which generally meant balancing abstraction with figurative images. She stated of her time at the TGP, "I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful." [2]

Critic Michasel Brenson noted the "fluid, sensual surfaces" of her sculptures, which he said "seem to welcome not just the embrace of light but also the caress of the viewer's hand." Ken Johnson said that Ms. Catlett "gives wood and stone a melting, almost erotic luminosity." But he also criticized the iconography as "generic and clichéd." [2]

However, Catlett was more concerned in the social messages of her work than in pure aesthetics. "I have always wanted my art to service my people – to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential." [2] She was a feminist and an activist before these movements took shape, pursuing a career in art despite segregation and the lack of female role models. [2] [10] "I don't think art can change things," Catlett said: "I think writing can do more. But art can prepare people for change, it can be educational and persuasive in people's thinking." [5]

Catlett also acknowledged her artistic contributions as influencing younger black women. She relayed that being a black woman sculptor "before was unthinkable. ... There were very few black women sculptors – maybe five or six – and they all have very tough circumstances to overcome. You can be black, a woman, a sculptor, a print-maker, a teacher, a mother, a grandmother, and keep a house. It takes a lot of doing, but you can do it. All you have to do is decide to do it." [5]

Artist statements

No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.

Elizabeth Catlett, 1973 [27]

"Art for me must develop from a necessity within my people. It must answer a question, or wake somebody up, or give a shove in the right direction — our liberation." [28]

Selected works

Selected collections

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Fern Cunningham is an American sculptor. One of her best known works is the Harriet Tubman Memorial, which was the first statue honoring a woman on city-owned land in Boston.

Barbara Jones-Hogu was an African-American artist best known for her work with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and for co-founding the artists' collective AfriCOBRA.


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