Elizabeth Catlett

American, born 1915

Mother and Child, 1956

Terra-cotta

7 x 7 x 11 ¼ inches high

Signed lower back

Catlett is one of the most significant sculptors and printmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Inspired by her great-great-grandmother’s stories of slavery and female resistance, she was an early advocate of women’s liberation and the empowerment of African Americans. A native of Washington, DC, she won a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but was rejected because she was African American. She attended Howard University, where she studied textile design before majoring in painting. Catlett later received the first master’s in fine arts from the State University of Iowa, where she studied under Grant Wood. A fellowship in 1946 took Catlett to Mexico, where she studied with Francisco Zuniga, one of Mexico’s leading sculptors. He taught her techniques of ceramic sculpture that dated to precolonial times. Catlett thrived in Mexico and would remain there for decades.

Mother and Child was completed during the year when Catlett returned to sculpture after the birth of her third son. She was active and acclaimed as a printmaker when her children were young, but this was her first sculpture of a mother and child — a subject she addressed often — since she had become a mother herself. This work, showing the mother looking down and nestling the head of the child, is different from most of Catlett’s sculptures of women, which often show an aspirational, upward tilt of the head. This tender and protective embrace suggests the vulnerability of a mother but does not diminish her strength.