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Charles White (artist)

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Charles Wilbert White, Jr. (April 2, 1918 – October 3, 1979) was an American artist known for his chronicling of African American related subjects in paintings and murals. White's best known work is The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, a mural at Hampton University. In 2018, the centenary year of his birth, the first major retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art.[2]

Charles White
Charles White artist.jpg
Charles Wilbert White, Jr.

(1918-04-02)April 2, 1918
Chicago, Illinois, United States
DiedOctober 3, 1979(1979-10-03) (aged 61)
Los Angeles, California, United States
EducationSchool of the Art Institute of Chicago
Known forPainting
MovementNew Negro Movement (Chicago Black Renaissance)
Spouse(s)Frances Barrett (? - his death)[1]
Elizabeth Catlett (1941 - divorced)


Early life and educationEdit

Charles Wilbert White was born on April 2, 1918, to Ethelene Gary, a domestic worker, and Charles White Sr, a railroad and construction worker, on the South Side of Chicago. His parents never married and his mother raised him -- as she had no child care, she would often leave him at the public library.[3] There White developed an affinity for art and reading at a young age.[4] White's mother bought him a set of oil paints when he was seven years old, which hooked White on painting. White also played music as a child, studied modern dance, and was part of theatre groups; however, he stated that art was his true passion.

White's mother also took him to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he would read and look at paintings—developing a particular interest in the works of Winslow Homer and George Inness. During the Great Depression, White tried to conceal his art passion in fear of embarrassment; however, this ended when White got a job painting signs at the age of fourteen. Since White had little money growing up, he often painted on whatever surfaces he could find including shirts, cardboard, and window blinds. White learned how to mix paints by sitting in everyday for a week on an Art Institute sponsored painting class that was taking place at a park near his home.[5] His mother re-married when White's father died in 1926. She married a steel mill worker who would become an abusive alcoholic, especially towards a young White, leaving him to escape into art. This is also the same year his mother began sending him to Mississippi twice a year to his aunts, Hasty Baines and Harriet Baines, where he would learn about his heritage and African American Southern folklore - these themes would heavily influence his art for the rest of his career as an artist.[6] An early activist, as a teenager, he volunteered his talents and became the house artist at the National Negro Congress in Chicago.[3]

White won a grant during the seventh grade to attend Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. After reading Alain Locke's book The New Negro: An Interpretation, a critique of the Harlem Renaissance,[7] White's social views changed. He learned after reading Locke's text about important African American figures in American history, and questioned his teachers on why they were not taught to students in school, causing some to label him a "rebel problematic child".[8] White did not graduate from high school, having flunked a year due to his refusal to attend class after being disillusioned with the teaching system. He was encouraged by his art teachers to submit his art works and won various scholarships that would later be taken away from him as an "error" and given to a whites instead.[9] He was admitted to two art schools, each then pulled his acceptance because of his race.[10] White ultimately received a full scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in school, White identified Mitchell Siporin, Francis Chapin, and Aaron Bohrod as his influences. He was an excellent draftsman, completing five drawing courses and received a final "A grade".[11] To pay the costs of materials in art school, White became a cook, using his mother's instruction and recipes. White later became an art teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School to pay the costs for art material.[5] White was hired Works Progress Administration artist, and was later jailed for forming a union with fellow black artists who were being treated unfairly and wanted equal rights.[12]


In 1938, White was hired by the Illinois Art Project a state affiliate of the Works Progress Administration. His work received an extended showing at the Chicago Coliseum during the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro which was part of an exposition commemorating the 75th anniversary of Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery.[13] An important figure in what became known as the Chicago Black Renaissance, White taught art classes at the Southside Community Art Center.[3] Following his first show at Paragon Studios in Cincinnati in 1938, White's work was exhibited widely throughout the United States, including, among many others, exhibitions at the Roko Gallery, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. White also showed at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw and the Pushkin Museum. In 1976 his work was featured in Two Centuries of Black American Art, LACMA's first exhibition devoted exclusively to African-American Artists.[14]

White moved to New Orleans in 1941 to teach at Dillard University. Beginning in that year, he was married briefly to famed sculptor and printmaker, Elizabeth Catlett who also taught at Dillard.[13] He served in the US Army during WWII, but was discharged when he contracted tuberculosis. White and Catlett moved to New York City and also studied together at an arts collective in Mexico City.

In 1958, due to problems White experienced with his breathing, he was persuaded to move to Los Angeles for its drier more mild climate.[3] From 1965 to his death in 1979, White taught at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.[15] On faculty at Otis, he was a beacon for African American artists who came to study with him.[16] Among those he taught were Alonzo Davis, David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall.[17] An elementary school was named after him and is located on the former Otis College campus.[18][19]

White's best known work is mural The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy at Hampton University.[20] Measuring around 12 feet by seven feet,[21] the mural depicts a number of notable African-Americans including Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Peter Salem, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Marian Anderson. White was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1972.

White's works are in the collections of a number of institutions, including Atlanta University, the Barnett Aden Gallery, the Deutsche Academie der Kunste, the Dresden Museum of Art, Howard University, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum,[22] the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Syracuse University and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The CEJJES Institute of Pomona, New York, owns a number of White's works and has established a dedicated Charles W. White Gallery.[23]


In 1982 a retrospective exhibition of White's work was held at the Studio Museum in Harlem.[3] In the 1990s, the idea of staging a major traveling retrospective exhibition arose. Ultimately, over approximately a ten year period, staff from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art attempted to locate various White pieces to put together an extensive exhibition of his work. The exhibition opened in Chicago in 2018, traveling to New York City and Los Angeles.[24][25]

White "was a humanist, drawn to the physical body and more literal representations of the lives of African-Americans", according to Lauren Warnecke for the Chicago Tribune.[24] Washington Post art critic, Philip Kennicott finds White's work central to American art. [26] "Grace, passion, coolness, toughness, [and] beauty" mark White's work, according to Holland Cotter in the New York Times; White had "the hand of an angel" and "the eye of a sage".[10]


  1. ^ "Paid Notice: Deaths WHITE, FRANCES BARRETT". The New York Times. 15 October 2000. Retrieved 17 June 2017.
  2. ^ Lopez, Ruth (June 5, 2018). "Key figure of the Chicago Black Renaissance, Charles White, finally gets his due". The Art Newpaper. Retrieved 2018-06-06.
  3. ^ a b c d e Miller, M.H. (September 28, 2018). "The Man Who Taught a Generation of Black Artists Gets His Own Retrospective". New York Times. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  4. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  5. ^ a b "Oral history interview with Charles W. White, 1965 March 9", Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.
  6. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  7. ^ Sartorious, Tara Cady (February 1998). Art Across the Curriculum. Arts & Activities. pp. Vol 123, p 14–16.
  8. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  9. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  10. ^ a b Cotter, Holland (October 11, 2018). "Charles White Was a Giant, Even Among the Heroes He Painted". New York Times. Retrieved 2018-10-23.
  11. ^ Wilson, Alona C. (2005). "Study of Charles White". International Review of African American Art. 20 (1): 46–47.
  12. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05.
  13. ^ a b Courage, Richard A. "Charles White and the Black Chicago Renaissance". International Review of African American Art. Hampton University. Retrieved 2018-06-08.
  14. ^ "Checklist of Artworks:" (PDF). LACMA. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  15. ^ Brock, Mary Sherwood, Otis Connections/ LA Printmaking in the 1960s "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-05-28. Retrieved 2010-05-18.
  16. ^ Thackara, Tess. "Charles White's Artworks Made Him an Icon for Black Artists". Artsy. Artsy. Retrieved 15 October 2018.
  17. ^ "Charles White". Digital Archive NOW DIG THIS!: ART AND BLACK LOS ANGELES 1960–1980. Hammer Museum. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  18. ^ "Charles White".
  19. ^ Office of Communications. "LACMA funding transformative renovation of Charles White Elementary School Art Gallery". LAUSD. Retrieved 9 October 2017.
  20. ^ Hocker, Cliff. "VMFA Focus on African American Art". International Review of African American Art. Retrieved December 14, 2014.
  21. ^ Breanne, Robertson (Spring 2016). "Pan-Americanism, Patriotism, and Race Pride in Charles White's Hampton Mural". American Art. 30 (1): pg 52–71.
  22. ^ Moser, Joann, "A Graphic Master: Charles White", Eye Level, July 14, 2009.
  23. ^ "The Charles White Gallery", The CEJJES Institute.
  24. ^ a b Warnecke, Lauren (June 15, 2018). "It's a homecoming for artist Charles White at the Art Institute". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2018-06-19.
  25. ^ Norman, Lee Ann (June 18, 2018). "Poise And Dignity In Every View, A Review of Charles White at the Art Institute of Chicago". Newcity Art. Retrieved 2018-06-19.
  26. ^ Kennicott,, Philip (October 18, 2018). "Charles White, who made some of this country's greatest art, transcends labels". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 21, 2018. White should be a household name, even among people who don’t closely follow the art world....It shouldn’t be possible to tell the history of American art without White figuring squarely in the middle of it.

Further readingEdit

The Editors of ARTnews (2018-10-26). "From the Archives: Reviews of Charles White's Exhibitions Over the Decades". ARTnews. Retrieved 2018-11-29. (reviews from 1943 to 1976 that appeared in the paper)

External linksEdit