Search the Collections

Charles White
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Los Angeles
A figurative painter, muralist, draftsman and printmaker, Charles White is known for his powerful depictions of African-Americans, particularly in his drawings and prints, and for his career as an arts educator. Born in Chicago in 1918, his mother was an African-American domestic worker who had come to Chicago from Mississippi and his father, of Native American (Creek), descent who was a railroad and construction worker. Given an oil paint set at age 7, he once said “from then on I was hooked. Art became the most important thing in my life.” His mother often left him at the main branch of the Chicago Public Library while she worked, and he educated himself with the Library’s books and visits to the Chicago Art Institute. In high school he received a scholarship to take Saturday art classes at the School of the Art Institute. At age fourteen he became a professional sign painter with one of his friends, a career he continued until he was eighteen or nineteen. By age sixteen he was exhibiting with Chicago’s Art Crafts Guild. White won art scholarships to the Frederic Mizen Academy of Art and the Chicago Academy of Art, but both rescinded the scholarships on learning his race. After finishing high school in 1937 he won a scholarship to study at the School of the Art Institute for a year. After finishing the two-year course of study in one year, in 1938 he went to work for the Illinois Art Project program of the federal Works Progress Administration for three years. His most notable project was the mural “Five Great American Negroes” (1939, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). White met the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), the chair of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans, who was in Chicago for the summer of 1941. They were married in December and moved to New Orleans. White taught at Dillard for six months and made sketches for a planned mural. He was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fellowship in April, 1942, enabling the couple to move to New York City, where he studied at the Art Students’ League under the painter and printmaker Harry Sternberg (1904-2001). During the fall, the Whites traveled through the American South and while in New Orleans he was badly beaten for attempting to enter a whites-only restaurant. In late 1942 the Whites moved to Hampton, Virginia, where he painted his celebrated mural “Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy” (1943) at the Hampton Institute. He received a second Rosenwald fellowship in 1943 for study at New York’s Art Students League and returned there during the summer. In 1944 White was drafted and was sent by the Army to Missouri, where he was among the soldiers assigned to help fight the Ohio and Mississippi River floods. White caught pleurisy, and then tuberculosis, leading to six months of hospitalization and discharge from the Army. He was an artist in residence at Howard University for five months in 1945, after which he and Catlett returned to New York. Catlett received a Rosenwald fellowship in 1946, which permitted them to travel to Mexico City, where they stayed with the artist David Siqueiros (1896-1974), met Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949) and White studied at the print workshop Taller de Gráfica Popular. They returned to New York in early 1947 and divorced. In September White had a solo show at the American Contemporary Art (ACA) Gallery in New York City. White had several operations in 1948 for his tuberculosis, and was visited in the hospital by the white social worker Frances Barrett (1926-2000), whom he had met in 1942. In 1950 their romance blossomed and they were married in May. They traveled to Europe the following year, traveling to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as well as England, France and Italy. Back in New York, in 1952 White’s work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased his drawing “Preacher” (1952). The ACA Gallery mounted solo exhibitions of White’s works in 1950, 1951 and 1953. He received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1955. Troubled again by tuberculosis, the Whites moved to Southern California in 1956 and settled in Altadena the following year. The ACA Gallery continued to support him, with solo shows in 1958, 1961 and 1965. Benjamin Horowitz’s (d. 2004) Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles began representing him in 1964 with the first of nine solo exhibitions it would put on during White’s lifetime. White began teaching at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design) in 1965 and continued to teach there until his death. He received the Childe Hassam Award from the American Academy of Art that year. He was elected as an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1971 and a full member in 1974. The High Museum, Atlanta, opened a major retrospective of White’s work in 1976, which traveled to four other cities. White died in 1979 at the Wadsworth Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles. (TNB 1/2020) Selected bibliography: Barnwell, Andrea D. Charles White. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2002. Oehler, Sarah Kelly and Esther Adler, eds. Charles White: A Retrospective. Exhibition catalog. With essays by Esther Adler and five others and a preface by Kerry James Marshall. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago and New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018