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Charles White (1918-1979)

1 of 7
Untitled, c.1942 tempera on Abacco illustration bo...

Untitled, c.1942
tempera on Abacco illustration board
18 5/8 x 17 3/4 inches / 47.3 x 45.1 cm

Untitled (Mural Study, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca), 1945 tempe...

Untitled (Mural Study, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca), 1945
tempera and graphite on illustration board
14 5/8 x 24 1/8 inches / 37.1 x 61.3 cm

Untitled, c.1950 oil on canvas 24 x 30 1/8 inches...

Untitled, c.1950
oil on canvas
24 x 30 1/8 inches / 61 x 76.5 cm

Let The Light Enter, 1961 Wolff crayon and charcoa...

Let The Light Enter, 1961
Wolff crayon and charcoal on paper
55 3/8 x 19 1/2 inches / 140.7 x 49.5 cm

J'Accuse! No.3, 1965 Wolff crayon and charcoal...

J'Accuse! No.3, 1965
Wolff crayon and charcoal on paper
30 1/2 x 30 inches / 77.5 x 76.2 cm

J'Accuse! No.5, 1966 Wolff crayon and charcoal...

J'Accuse! No.5, 1966
Wolff crayon and charcoal on paper
51 3/4 x 34 7/8 inches / 131.4 x 88.6 cm

Study for Cathedral of Life, 1967 Wolff crayon and...

Study for Cathedral of Life, 1967
Wolff crayon and charcoal on paper
47 5/8 x 31 inches / 121 x 78.7 cm


New & Noteworthy

American Fine Art Magazine, January/February 2018

American Fine Art Magazine, January/February 2018

by Joshua Rose

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ArtNews, March 2009

ArtNews, March 2009

by Mona Molarsky

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Let the Light Enter, Major Drawings 1942-1970

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Prints & Publications

Artist Information

“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. His mother, Ethelene Gary, was a domestic worker and had moved north in 1914 from Mississippi. White’s father, Charley, held several jobs, and although he did not live with Charles and Ethelene, the family saw each other regularly and attended church together weekly. When Charles was a child, Ethelene would drop him off at the public library or the Art Institute of Chicago while she ran errands. These early experiences instilled in Charles a love of reading and art that his mother further encouraged, buying him his first set of oils when he was only seven. After a few mishaps (including a scolding for taking down some of his mother’s window shades to use as canvas), Charles taught himself how to mix the paint, linseed oil, and turpentine by watching a group of art students in a nearby park and then duplicating at home what he had seen. In 1926, Charley White died, and Ethelene married Clifton Marsh, an abusive alcoholic. At the age of nine, in addition to attending school, Charles began working to help support his family. Around this time, he also began taking long trips to Mississippi, where he learned about the history of his family and fell in love with southern African American culture. Charles continued to draw and paint, and in seventh grade, he was one of 500 Chicago public school students to receive a scholarship from the James Raymond Nelson Fund to attend Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago; he, along with painter Eldzier Cortor and writer Margaret Burroughs, continued to take classes until his junior year of high school, receiving instruction and attending lectures by artists like Ivan Albright. He participated and exhibited with the Art Crafts Guild; members of the Guild like Charles Sebree, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks were vital to the Black Chicago Renaissance – a cultural movement that encouraged activism and support for African American art and literature in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although White was spared the Jim Crow laws of the south, he grew up in a divided city that exposed him to racism. At age fourteen, White read Alain Locke’s The New Negro, which sparked a sense of pride and a passion for black American history, but caused problems for him at school among teachers who labeled him a troublemaker for questioning their Eurocentric curriculum. In 1934 and 1935, he won scholarships to study art, and both times, when White and his mother showed up in person to claim the scholarships, they were told they were no longer available to Charles. Finally, in 1937, White earned and actually received a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. The following year, he joined the WPA, first as an easel painter and then in the mural division. However, even within this government-sponsored program, black artists had to fight for equal treatment and opportunities.

Despite the WPA’s discriminatory power structure, White was allowed to create his first mural after less than a year with the program. 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. During these years, he was also commissioned by the Associated Negro Press (ANP) to create A History of the Negro Press for the American Negro Exposition, and three of his artworks were included in the Library of Congress exhibition The Art of the American Negro. While in the WPA, White also met and befriended photographer Gordon Parks, and the two of them would often walk through Chicago’s South Side together, photographing and sketching the biography of the neighborhood.

The 1940s were eventful years for White, in both positive and negative ways. In 1941, he met and married Elizabeth Catlett and moved to New Orleans, taking a teaching position at Dillard University, where Catlett was chair of the art department. A Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942 enabled White to move to New York and study at the Art Students League with Harry Sternberg and then later to travel throughout the south, conducting research for his next mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America at Hampton Institute, Hampton, VA. With the funds from an additional Rosenwald Fellowship the following year, White spent a year creating the mural; at Hampton, White met and befriended art professor Viktor Lowenfeld and his then student, John Biggers. Returning to New York in 1944 to teach at George Washington Carver School, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving as corporal in the all-black 132nd Engineering Regiment for eight months with an honorable discharge for pulmonary tuberculosis. In 1946, with Catlett, he traveled to Mexico to work at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura y Escultura and the famed graphic arts collective Taller de Gráfica Popular. The following year, White and Catlett returned to the Northeast, divorced, and 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 1948, White underwent several operations at Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Queens to treat his tuberculosis for over a year; in 1950, he married Frances Barrett, a social worker he met while a summer camp counselor with Rockwell Kent at Wo-Chi-Ca.

With the rise of McCarthyism after World War II, the FBI had begun a surveillance file on White. Although he never joined the Communist party, White's political inclinations and his friendships with leftist artists and/or intellectuals eventually led to his being called to testify at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Fortunately, for mysterious reasons, White was just as suddenly informed that his testimony was no longer needed. Undaunted, White continued to advance a politics of struggle in his art, celebrating historical figures, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman, and depicting ordinary black farmers, preachers, mothers, and other workers with an unwavering strength and a silent, solid grace. Shifting to paper almost exclusively, White now worked predominantly with charcoal or sepia-toned oil. Over the next several years, White received various awards of distinction, including a John Hay Whitney Foundation Opportunity Fellowship and, in 1955, his first monograph Charles White: Ein Künstler Amerikas by Sidney Finkelstein was published. 

In 1956, White relocated to Pasadena, California, where he and Frances remained for the rest of their years, eventually adopting two children, Jessica and Ian. In California, White was geographically removed from the epicenter of the civil rights movement, although he kept in contact with friends on the east coast and 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 and commented on the violence of racism and the heroism of those who stood up to it. In 1965, he began teaching at Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design), where he remained on faculty, serving as Chair of the Drawing Department, until 1979. In 1970, he 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 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, White remained committed to his art and to the vibrancy, joy, and pain 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.

As art historian David Driskell writes, “White made positive portrayals of his people with symbols relevant to the harsh social and political climate of the time, because he had experienced that climate as a black artist and knew firsthand how long change took in this nation, particularly in his lifetime.” In 1979, after a distinguished career, White died of congestive heart failure, and a year later the town of Altadena, CA dedicated Charles White Park in his memory. In 2021, through a gift from Board of Trustees Chair Mei-Lee Ney, Otis College of Art and Design announced the Charles White Art and Design Scholarship, a four-year full tuition undergraduate scholarship established to celebrate White’s legacy and honor his enduring influence at Otis.

Since its inception, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery has championed the work of Charles White. In 2009, the gallery mounted its first solo exhibition presenting Charles White: Let the Light Enter. In 2018, the gallery showcased work by White alongside work by his friends and colleagues in Truth & Beauty: Charles White and His Circle. In addition, White’s work has been exhibited in numerous group contexts including yearly in African American Art: Twentieth Century Masterwork (1994-2003), Embracing the Muse: African and African American Art (2004) and Building Community: The African American Scene (2006). In 2018-19, Charles White: A Retrospective, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in over 30 years, was on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2019, Charles White: Celebrating the Gordon Gift was on view at the Blanton Museum of Art and the Christian-Green Gallery of The University of Texas at Austin and White’s work was included in numerous group exhibitions including two organized around his artistic influence: Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and Life Model: Charles White and His Students at Charles White Elementary School, also in Los Angeles.

In 2020, White’s work was featured in Tell Me Your Story: 100 Years of Storytelling in African American Art, Kunsthal KAde, Amersfoort, The Netherlands and the major traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, organized by Tate Modern, London. His work was also included in Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, 1925-1945 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (2020) and Grace Before Jones: Camera, Disco, Studio at Nottingham Contemporary in the United Kingdom (2020).

White’s work can be found in major museums throughout the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago (IL); High Museum of Art (Atlanta, GA); Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC); Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University (Washington, DC); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA); The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY); Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA); Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, TX); Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY); National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC); Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University (NJ); Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC); Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond); and Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY).

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


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 of American Art, Fort Worth, TX
Art Bridges, Fort Worth, TX
Art Galleries at Black Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Arkansas Arts Center, Little Rock, AR
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
California African American Museum, Los Angeles, CA
Chicago Public Library, Chicago, IL
The City College of New York, City University of New York, New York, NY
Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Colby College Museum of Art, Colby College, Waterville, ME
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans
and the African Diaspora, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Deutsche Akademie Der Kunst, Berlin, Germany
Fisk University Art Galleries, Fisk University, Nashville, TN
Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI
Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, SC
Hampton University Museum, Hampton University, Hampton, VA
The Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts, San Antonio, TX
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA
Intergrafik, Berlin, Germany
John L. Warfield Center of African and African American Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI
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
Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, CA
The 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
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
National Academy of Design, New York, NY
National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, OH
The National Archives, Washington, DC
National Center of Afro-American Artists, Boston, MA
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ
Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art, Utah State University, Logan, UT
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA
Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana, CA
Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena, CA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia
RISD Museum, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Savannah, GA
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, NY
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smith College Museum of Art, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
Southside Community Art Center, Chicago, IL
Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Spelman College, Atlanta, GA
Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany
Syracuse University Art Galleries, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY
Taller de Grafica Popular, Mexico City, Mexico
University of Michigan Museum of Art, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Williams College Museum of Art, Williams College, Williamstown, MA
Wichita Museum of Art, Wichita, KS
The Wylie and May Louise Jones Gallery, Bakersfield College, Bakersfield, CA
Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, CT

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