This work by Charles Alston shows shapes inspired by African masks in a muted palette

Charles Henry Alston

American, 1907–1977

African Theme III, 1952–53

Oil on canvas

36 x 27 inches

Signed and dated lower left

An accomplished painter, sculptor, muralist, and teacher, the North Carolina–born and New York–raised Alston was a pioneer in many regards. He was the first African American to teach at the Art Students League. He founded Studio 306 in Harlem, which offered classes to adults and children and became a center for black artists, writers, actors, and musicians. He was the first African American supervisor in the WPA, managing the completion of the Harlem Hospital murals. In 1950 Alston entered an abstract painting in a competition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He won first prize and was offered $1,500 by the Met for the painting. This essentially launched his career as a full-time artist.

Known for the range of stylistic approaches he applied to his art, Alston was particularly exploratory in the 1950s. Many paintings experiment with color, space, and form. African Theme III is notable for its muted palette, Alston’s technique of using the end of a paintbrush to etch outlines, and the influence of African art and African masks. This art, he said, “played a tremendous part in my work. I think if you look at my work you can see that very clearly—the kind of plastic feeling about the figure. It’s very close to African art.”

This work by Charles Alston shows shapes inspired by African masks in a muted palette