1 Painting in Collection
(1915-2012) United States / Mexico
Works in Selected Public Collections
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; Bronx Museum of Art, NY; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; Cleveland Museum of Art, OH; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Baltimore Museum of Art, MD; Studio Museum in Harlem, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY; Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Pursuit of Abstraction, Wolfsonian-FIU Museum, Miami Beach, FL, 2017. Traveled to The Baker Museum, Artis-Naples, Naples, FL, 2017
Untitled, (Women in a Yellow Hat) included
Stargazers: Elizabeth Catlett in Conversation with 21 Contemporary Artists, Bronx Museum of Art, NY, 2011
Challenge of the Modern: African-American Artists 1925-1945, Curator Lowery Sims, Studio Museum, Harlem, 2003
Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture: A Fifty Year Retrospective, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY, 1998 (accompanying catalog)
Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944-1992, Studio Museum Harlem, NY, 1994
Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett, Heather Nickels and Melanie Anne Herzog, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021
Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico, Melanie Anne Herzog, University of Washington Press, 2005
Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People, Melanie Anne Herzog, Art Institute of Chicago, 2005.
Elizabeth Catlett, Sculpture: A Fifty Year Retrospective, Lucinda H. Gedeon (editor), Lowery Stokes Sims and Michael Brenson (Contributors), University of Washington Press, 1998
Born 1915 Washington, D.C.
Died 2012 Cuernavaca, Mexico
Elizabeth Catlett is an American Modernist whose prints, sculptures and paintings focused on the experience of African American people. Creating images of dignity, strength and determination, Catlett’s choice to foreground the lives of African American women distinguishes her as an essential voice in 20th century American art. Catlett’s artwork was shaped by a belief that art should serve a social purpose and be accessible to a broad range of communities. Like many of her peers she was influenced by the work of Mexico’s muralists, the ideals of Marxism, African sculpture and Modernism’s adherence to simplicity of form.
Elizabeth Catlett came of age in a household where her identity as a black women was shaped by generational stories of slavery. Racism was recognized as a condition of living and issues of social justice were part of the daily conversation. Catlett’s father, a teacher, died before she was born. She was raised by her mother, a truant officer and a community activist, and her grandparents, three of whom had been slaves. She spent summers in North Carolina where she recalls seeing sharecroppers work under impoverished conditions and recognizing that despite slavery’s end, racism continued to oppress and exploit. The family believed in the importance of education and Catlett was a superior student.
At age 17 Catlett experienced racism first hand when a scholarship she had been awarded to attend Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) was withdrawn once the school realized she was black. Undaunted, she enrolled at Howard University, graduating in 1935. She taught for two years at public schools in Durham, N.C. and then went on to receive a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa where Grant Wood was her teacher and the first among many to encourage Catlett to paint from her own experience. For her graduate thesis, Catlett created a sculpture Negro Mother and Child, which won first prize in the 1940 American Negro Columbia Exposition.
In 1940 she accepted a position as chair of the Art Dept at Dillard University in New Orleans where she taught drawing, painting, printmaking and art history. While she enjoyed teaching, she was frustrated that it left little time to make art. She spent the summer between her years at Dillard in Chicago studying sculpture at the Art Institute and lithography at the South Side Community Art Center where she developed friendships with artists of the black Chicago Renaissance, including DuSable museum founder Margaret Burroughs and Charles White whom Catlett would later marry (1941-46). This group of artists were influenced by Marxist ideals and interested in socially critical forms of artistic expression while drawing attention to the role of the black worker in American society. Poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker, dancer Katherine Dunham, and novelist Richard White were all in Chicago at this moment and each was committed to the belief that art should provide a tangible function for the African-American community, an idea that was absorbed by Catlett and one which would become a foundation for her art throughout her life.
In 1942 Catlett left teaching and she and White moved to New York. Catlett studied with sculptor Ossip Zadkine, a Russian modernist who introduced her to cubism and encouraged her to look at the art of Africa to learn about abstraction and the human figure. Catlett worked primarily as a figurative artist and never fully abandoned representational imagery in part because she wanted her work to be seen and understood broadly but her ability to pare everything down to its essence, eliminating details in favor of simple planes and forms was influenced by Modernism.
Catlett knew when she was quite young that she wanted to be an artist. Her commitment to social justice was also evident early on. In high school she protested lynching by standing in front of the Supreme Court with a noose around her neck. While she was at Howard, she joined the anti-war and anti-fascism National Student League activities. But it was her time teaching working class people at George Washington Carver School in Harlem (1944-46) that deepened her understanding of the African American working class experience. The Carver School was a community school that was supported by prominent progressives and whose curriculum was designed according to the students’ needs. Catlett taught everything from sculpture to how to make a dress while also raising money to support her salary and the school. Working within this community solidified Catlett’s desire to connect her art to her activist beliefs. It was during this time that she committed to represent the lives of Black women.
Everybody I met there was so hungry for culture—for art, music, for dance, for theatre— and I felt that these were the people whom I wanted to address in my work. (Elizabeth Catlett, An American Artist in Mexico, Melanie Herzog, p. 38)
It was during this influential period that Catlett painted Woman in a Yellow Hat (1943). In keeping with her commitment to paint subjects she knew, this work is done in a social realist style where Catlett captures the dignity and exhaustion of this woman whose large angular hands and arms support the weight of a weary head. The woman’s face, particularly the nose and lips, are rendered with a flatness and angularity that shows the influence of West African masks. Each eye is rendered differently, one intensely staring downward into space and the other vacant and set into a round cheek that is more naturalistic in its form. The color and textures in the squared shoulders and the geometric planes of the hat are echoed in the abstracted background and blocks of modeled color which show the influence of her work with Zadkine. The coarse curly hair evident under the hat is typical of Catlett as she insisted that her figures be seen and recognized as people of African heritage. The triangular-shaped head is disproportionally small and the hands and arms oversized, a trait that Charles White and the Mexican muralists also adopted in their treatment of the figure, emphasizing the strength and endurance necessitated by labor.
Catlett’s depiction of this woman is interesting to consider in contrast to her well known Sharecropper, a linocut that she did ten years later in 1952. Catlett’s interest in telling the story of Black women was not restricted to those in the rural south. Her own life experience tracks the migration to the urban north—a migration that happened largely between 1913 and 1946—and Woman in a Yellow Hat is more than likely a portrait of an urban worker, someone she may have met in Harlem. In Sharecropper the woman is upright and proud, her hat round and full, taking up a good portion of the top half of the image. Her gaze is outward. In Woman in a Yellow Hat the subject reflects strength but also exhaustion. The arms and hands are a more prominent feature than the face whose gaze is downward. The hat is a triangle form that suggests the architecture of cubism.
In 1946 Catlett won a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant and left New York to work in Mexico City’s Taller de Grafica Popular (TGP), an important arts collective that produced prints and broadsides supporting populist causes. At TGP Catlett found a community of artists of like minds and approach. She embraced and understood their desire to do the people’s art. Their commitment to share the experiences of ordinary people, their accessible style and their celebration of indigenous Mexican peoples resonated with her desire to elevate the perspective of African American women and inspired a body of work that is one of Catlett’s most significant. The Negro Woman series of 15 linoleum cuts begins with a portrait entitled “I am the Negro Woman” and goes on to include images of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and images of women and men protesting, working and lynched.
After a year in Mexico City, Catlett returned home to end her marriage with Charles White and then returned permanently to Mexico where she took up residence with Francisco Mora who she had met at TGP. The same year she had her first major show Paintings, Sculpture and Prints of the Negro Woman which included the The Negro Woman print series, 11 paintings and 4 terracotta sculptures at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C. This important exhibition spoke to the history of oppression, resistance, and survival of African-American women. The intimate images not only made visible and dignified ordinary women but demanded the audience witness their history, tenacity and determination.
From 1958 through 1976, Catlett directed the sculpture department at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. But because of her association with TGP, Catlett became a target of political scrutiny during the anti-Communist environment of McCarthyism. In 1959 she was deemed an “undesirable alien” and was rounded up and held with other Americans living in Mexico who were suspected of Communist activity. In response, Catlett became a Mexican citizen in 1962 and was regularly denied a U.S. visa. While these circumstances added to her obscurity as an artist that was compounded by her race and gender, she never abandoned her desire to celebrate the African American experience creating images of social justice heroes Malcolm X and Angela Davis and other works that address the United States civil rights struggle.
In 1971 the Studio Museum in Harlem staged a major exhibition of Catlett’s art. Many people petitioned the U.S. government to allow her to come to the U.S. to attend the exhibition. She was finally granted a visa, returning to New York after decades in Mexico. But her home was in Mexico and she returned there, living in Cuernavaca and received little attention in the U. S. until a 1993, exhibition at June Kelly Gallery in New York which prompted several museums to take note and purchase work. In 1998 the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York honored Catlett with a fifty year retrospective and in 2002 the U.S. restored her citizenship.
Catlett’s artwork today continues to resonate deeply. Her lived experience as a black woman, a mother, daughter and grandmother informed everything that she did. Working in community with groups of other socially committed artists, she created a body of work that simply and forthrightly illustrates pride, struggle, resistance and resilience. 2
I have always wanted my art to service black people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential. Told to Samella Lewis in her book Art: African American, 1978