Charles White depicts two women in this greyscale drawing

A Look at “Charles White: A Retrospective” Through Three Works Sold by Jonathan Boos

Below, we look at three works sold by Jonathan Boos and included in the retrospective, and explore five facts that fueled White’s career

By Zoe Fortin

On view until January 13, 2019, at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), “Charles White: A Retrospective” is the first major museum survey devoted to the artist in over 30 years. Organized by curators Esther Adler and Sarah Kelly Oehler, it was previously on view at The Art Institute of Chicago and after New York, the show will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Presenting Charles White’s full career, the exhibition features over 100 works. Below, we look at three works sold by Jonathan Boos and included in the retrospective, and explore five facts that fueled White’s career.

1. Charles White grew up in Chicago

This work by Charles Whites shows a sharecropper woman standing on the threshold of her house looking out
Charles White, American, 1918–1979. Our Land, 1951. Egg tempera on panel. 24 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private Collection.

Born in 1918 and raised by a single mother in Chicago, Charles White often spent time alone at the Chicago Public Library as a child. At 13, Charles White received a scholarship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he noticed “that few of the figures looked like him.[1]” This early exposure can be witnessed in Our Land (1951), in which Charles White references Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930), owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.

2. He was politically active and socially engaged

Charles White depicts two women in this greyscale drawing
Charles White, American, 1918–1979. Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep, 1956. Graphite and pen and ink on paper. 39¼ x 41½ inches. Signed and dated lower right. Collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

While Charles White’s political engagement shows in images he made of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, it can also be found in more subtle representations and everyday scenes. Our Land not only references Wood’s masterpieces, but “transforms it,” notes Holland Cotter. “White replaces Wood’s pale, dour farm couple with the frame-filling form of a single black woman, her skin a spectrum of harvest colors, gold and brown,” adds Cotter[2].

Similarly, speaking about Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep (1956), Harry Belafonte noted, “If you look at the paintings that he does, the limbs of the black subject is always powerfully displayed. Strong arms. A lot of other art saw us as meager, as starving somehow. A Charlie White, you look at that and that was a place to be celebrated.”

3. Charles White created several ambitious murals

A seated man is performing at the guitar while a woman rests her head in her arms behind him
Charles White, American, 1918–1979. Goodnight Irene, 1952. Oil on canvas. 47 x 24 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.

Charles White worked on several murals throughout his career, many of which depicted notable figures. For instance, Contribution of American Negro to Democracy (1943) includes a portrait of composer and songwriter Lead Belly, in the middle of a performance. Almost ten years later, Charles White returned to the subject with Goodnight, Irene (1952), a painting named after Lead Belly’s most famous song.

4. Everywhere he lived, Charles White was part of a strong creative community

Though he grew up in Chicago, Charles White lived most of his adult life in New York, where he moved with his first wife, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, before moving to California in 1956. At each of these locations, Charles White was a “contributing member of a creative community, a role he cherished.[3]” Examples of such friendships include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who recorded a version of “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep” the same year White executed his drawing of the same title, and Harry Belafonte, who once owned several of the works included in the exhibition, as well as Gordon Parks and Jacob Lawrence.

5. He was a teacher and inspirational figure

Black and white image of Charles White teaching a life drawing class to eight students in Chicago
Charles White teaching life drawing classes at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago between 1938 and 1941. Holger Cahill papers, 1910-1993, bulk 1910-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Even though Charles White “grew to dislike school intensely,” often skipping classes, “looking at paintings, and dreaming of becoming an artist,[4]” the artist returned to the school system and started teaching in 1965 in Los Angeles. At Otis College of Art and Design, White’s students included contemporary artists Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons, who both credit him for mentoring their early careers. As a testament to White’s legacy, Hammons curated “Charles White—Leonardo da Vinci,” which was on view at MoMA a year prior to the exhibition “Charles White: A Retrospective.”

Cover image: Charles White, American, 1918–1979. Our Land, 1951. Egg tempera on panel. 24 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private Collection.

1. Cotter, Holland. “Charles White Was a Giant, Even Among the Heroes He Painted.” The New York Times. October 12, 2018: Page C15.
2. ibid
3. ibid
4. Charles White, shared by Fran White. April 26, 1982. http://www.charleswhite-imagesofdignity.org/bio.html