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Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015)

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Rooftops on Wabash, 1938 oil on canvas 30 1/8 x 24...

Rooftops on Wabash, 1938
oil on canvas
30 1/8 x 24 inches / 76.5 x 61 cm

The Couple, c.1949 oil on Masonite 28 x 22 inches...

The Couple, c.1949
oil on Masonite
28 x 22 inches / 71.1 x 55.9 cm

Untitled, c.1970 black ink and sepia ink on paper...

Untitled, c.1970
black ink and sepia ink on paper
27 1/8 x 20 1/2 inches / 68.9 x 52.1 cm


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Artist Information

“The Black woman represents the Black race. She is the Black Spirit; she conveys a feeling of eternity and a continuance of life.”[1]

Celebrated for his serene paintings of graceful black women influenced by the elegant lines of African sculpture, Eldzier Cortor was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1916. His father, a successful electrician frustrated by southern racism, decided to move the family to Chicago in 1917. They first settled on the West Side, near the family of Archibald J. Motley, Jr. but changes in their economic status during the Depression forced them to move to the city’s South Side. Cortor grew up reading the Chicago Defender, a national weekly (at the time) newspaper focusing on and published by black Americans. The Defender campaigned against lynching and segregation, and it published the writing of such authors as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. But Cortor’s favorite section was a recurring comic strip featuring a hapless southern tramp new to Chicago, who eventually gathers enough money to travel to Africa.[2] As a teenager, he attended Englewood High School, where he met Charles Sebree and Charles White.

In 1936, Cortor enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where one of his classes involved a trip to the Field Museum to see the collection of African sculpture. The dramatic attenuation of the human form and the dynamic body poses central to West African art had a tremendous impact on Cortor’s visual sensibilities. He continued his studies under László Moholy-Nagy at Chicago’s Institute of Design. During the 1930s, Cortor found work with the Federal Art Project of the WPA, and in 1941, with funds from the WPA, he co-founded the South Side Community Art Center on South Michigan Avenue. Three years later, Cortor received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, in order to travel to the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas and study the Gullah community there. Despite their traumatic history of diaspora and slavery, the Gullah had preserved West African language, food, religion, and traditions in the Americas for generations, often fusing African ways with European ones to create a unique culture. As such, they became a black American ideal for Cortor, and Gullah women were the inspiration for his visualization of the transcendent spirit of African Americans embodied as a quiet, regal woman of striking beauty wearing a vibrant headscarf.



In 1946, Cortor achieved popular recognition when Life magazine published one of his semi-nude female figures. Funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1949, he traveled to the West Indies to paint in Jamaica and Cuba before settling in Haiti for two years, during which he taught classes at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. These travels exposed Cortor to more examples of how West African culture survived in diaspora. The symbolic imagery in Cortor’s paintings—birds, gates, shells, women—resonate with surrealism and also speak to the vitality of African culture—how the old world protected itself from obliteration by hiding in or merging with the imposed culture of the new.

For over sixty years, regardless of trends, Cortor has focused his paintings, drawings and prints on “classical composition,” a term he uses to describe the solemn heads and elegant figures of black women. In recent years, his work has become more biographical, often reflecting past experiences. In 2006, his career as a master printmaker and draftsman was celebrated in the exhibition Black Spirit: Work on Paper by Eldzier Cortor organized by the Indiana University Art Museum.


[1] Eldzier Cortor quoted in Matt Backer, “Black Spirit:” Works on Paper by Eldzier Cortor, exh. brochure (Indiana University Art Museum, March 7 to May 7, 2006) re-keyed and reprinted in Resource Library, March 2006. (accessed April 2010).

[2] Matt Backer, (accessed April 2010).



American Federation of Arts, 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, IL
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH
Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Clark Atlanta University, Atlanta, GA
Howard University Gallery of Art, Howard University, Washington, DC
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, IL
Library of Congress, Washington, DC
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Musée du Peuple Haitien, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
NYC Health + Hospitals, New York, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
Petrucci Family Foundation, Hanover, PA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY
Tougaloo Art Collections, Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY