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Charles White (1918-1979)

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Untitled (Seated African-American Man), 1936

oil on canvas
22" x 20", signed

Study for the Struggle for Liberation (Study for the Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present), 1940
study for a mural at the Chicago Public Library
tempera on illustration board
16 1/4 x 38 5/8 inches (sheet size), 13 1/4 x 36 inches (sight size), signed and dated

I Been Rebuked & I Been Scorned, 1954
Charcoal and Wolff crayon on paper
44" x 27 7/8" sheet size / 43 1/2" x 27 1/4" sight size
signed and dated

Juba, 1962
Wolff crayon and ink on board
54" x 24", signed and dated

Juba #2, 1965

Wolff crayon and oil wash on paperboard
26 1/4" x 36" sheet size
25 1/2" x 35" sight size
signed and dated

Let The Light Enter, 1961
charcoal and Wolff crayon on paper
56 x 19 7/8 inches, signed and dated

Hasty Baines, 1969
oil and wash on illustration board
24" x 47 3/4" sheet size / 23 1/4" x 47 1/8" sight size
signed and dated



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“I am interested in creating a style that is much more powerful, that will take in the technical end and at the same time 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 must paint about it.”[1]

Charles Wilbert White was born in Chicago in 1918. When he was a child, his mother would drop him off at the public library or Art Institute of Chicago while she ran errands. These early experiences instilled a love of reading and art that she encouraged, buying a set of oils for him when he was seven. White also took regular trips to Mississippi, where he learned the history of his family and fell in love with southern African American culture. Although White was spared the Jim Crow laws of the south, he still had to contend with Northern racism. In 1934 and 1935, he won scholarships to study art, and both times, when White and his mother showed up to claim them, they were told the scholarships were no longer available to Charles. Finally, in 1937, White did receive his scholarship for the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, he joined the WPA, and from 1939 to 1940, he worked on Five Great American Negroes, a five-by-twelve-foot canvas depicting Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver. He was also commissioned by the Associated Negro Press to create A History of the Negro Press, and three of his artworks were included in the Library of Congress exhibition The Art of the American Negro.

A Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942 enabled White to study at the Art Students League in New York and to travel throughout the south, doing research and making studies for his mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America. With funds from an additional Rosenwald, White spent 1943 creating the mural at the Hampton Institute (now, Hampton University), where he befriended Viktor Lowenfeld and John Biggers. After being drafted into the US Army in 1944, White contracted tuberculosis and spent nearly two years convalescing in a hospital in Beacon, NY. Once he was well, he traveled to Mexico and spent a year studying lithography at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. The following year, the American Contemporary Art (ACA) Gallery in New York mounted his first solo exhibition, a series of works depicting the strength and beauty of real and archetypal African American women. In 1949, he became a co-founder of the Committee for the Negro Arts.

With the rise of McCarthyism after World War II, the FBI began a surveillance file on White.[2] Undaunted, White continued to advance a politics of struggle in his art, celebrating historical figures who resisted slavery, such as Truth and Harriett Tubman, and depicting ordinary black farmers, preachers, mothers, and workers with an unwavering strength and a silent, solid grace. In 1952, he began to execute these works in charcoal and sepia tones, rendering his subjects in monumental, rounded forms. White received various awards over the next several years, including a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a John Hay Whitney Fellowship. In 1956, poor health caused him to leave New York for Southern California, where although geographically removed from the center of the civil rights movement, he continued to contribute to the struggle for equality through the arts. Works such as Southern News Late Edition (1961) and the J’Accuse series (1966) addressed the violence of racism and portrayed the heroism of those who stood up to it.

In 1970, White traveled to Belize as part of his study of the history of slavery and of the “maroon republics” founded by escaped slaves throughout Latin America. Shortly after this, White became interested in wanted posters for runaway slaves in the United States, and with a fellowship from Tamarind in 1970, White worked extensively on his Wanted Poster series. In 1972, White joined the ranks of Henry Ossawa Tanner and Hughie Lee-Smith, as the third African American artist elected a full member of the National Academy of Design. Throughout the 1970s, he remained committed to his art and to the vibrancy of African American history and culture. He returned to mural painting a year before his death, with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune—Last Will and Testament at the Mary McLeod Bethune Public Library, in Los Angeles, CA. Given the many hours White spent as a child in the public libraries of Chicago, the location of the mural is fitting as White’s last major painting. In 1979, after a distinguished career, White died, and a year later the town of Altadena, CA dedicated Charles White Park in his memory. White’s work can be found in major museums as well as public and private collections throughout the country.

[1] Andrea D. Barnwell Brownlee, Charles White (The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art: Volume I) (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2002), 3.

[2] Barnwell Brownlee, 51.


Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL

The Art Students League, New York, NY (studies with Harry Sternberg)

Taller de Gráfica Popular, Mexico City, Mexico (studies lithography)
Escuela de Pintura y Escultura de la Secretaría de Educación Pública Arte, Mexico City, Mexico


Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH
American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, NY
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AR
California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL
The City College of New York, New York, NY
Clark Atlanta University Art Galleries, Atlanta, GA
Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME
Deutsche Akademie Der Kunst, Berlin, Germany
Fisk University Art Galleries, Nashville, TN
Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC
Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC
Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC
Intergrafik, Berlin, Germany
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles County Public Library, Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles State College, Los Angeles, CA
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Chicago, IL
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Academy Museum, New York, NY
National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, OH
The National Archives, Washington, DC
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, UT
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CA
Pioneer Museum and Haggin Galleries, Stockton, CA
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
Selma Burke Art Center, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, PA
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany
Syracuse University Art Galleries, Syracuse, NY
Taller de Grafica Popular, Mexico City, Mexico
Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, AL
University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Academy, Berkeley, CA
University of Illinois, Chicago, IL
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI
Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond, VA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Wichita Museum of Art, Wichita, KS
The Wylie and May Louise Jones Gallery, Bakersfield College, Bakersfield, CA

Five Great Americans, or Progress of the American Negro, Howard University, Washington, DC 

History of the Negro Press, American Negro Exhibition, Chicago, IL 

The Contribution of the American Negro to American Democracy, Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA 

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune - Last Will and Testament, Mary McLeod Bethune Public Library, Los Angeles, CA