Cortor, Eldzier 1916–
Eldzier Cortor 1916–
“The Black woman represents the Black race,” artist Eldzier Cortor wrote in an exhibition catalogue quoted in the Boston Herald. “She is the Black Spirit; she conveys a feeling of eternity and continuance of life.” The works of Cortor, who worked mostly in the medium of prints, spanned various styles but were unified by their concentration on the theme of African-American womanhood. Cortor represented black women in numerous ways: he created simple, classical studies of their heads, he drew elongated nude figures clearly influenced by African sculpture, he depicted them in cramped urban living spaces. One of a group of gifted African-American artists who emerged in Chicago during the years between the two world wars, Cortor remained somewhat neglected over the course of his long career.
Cortor was born on January 10, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia. His first name, pronounced “El-zee-oor,” was one that had been handed down through his family. Cortor’s father was a successful electrician and amateur aviator who wanted nothing to do with Southern racism and therefore moved his family to Chicago in 1917. Eldzier Cortor showed artistic talent during childhood in his ability to make accurate copies of the leading newspaper comic strips of the day, most often of all a Chicago Defender strip called “Bungleton Green” that poked fun at new arrivals from the rural South.
Cortor’s father discouraged his artistic ambitions and urged him to learn a trade, but Cortor was encouraged by an Englewood High School art teacher. After dropping out of school and following his father’s path as an electrician, he took night classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and by 1936 had saved enough money to enroll at the great museum’s art school full time. Several influences marked Cortor’s education. Walking by the museum’s collection of paintings by the old European masters every day, he gained an inclination toward basic technique and toward precise drawings of the human body; over his entire career, much of his output would consist of depictions of human heads and nude female figures—the basic stuff of the training of art students for centuries. Cortor was also strongly impressed by the collection of African sculptures he encountered at the Field Museum of Natural History, a few blocks south of the Art Institute.
At a Glance…
Born on January 10, 1916, in Richmond, VA; son of John and Ophelia (Twisdale) Cortor; married Sophia Schmidt, August 20, 1951; four children: Michael, Mercedes, Stephen, and Miriam. Education: Studied at Art Institute of Chicago, 1936-41; studied at Columbia University, New York.
Career: South Side Community Arts Center (employed by Works Progress Administration), Chicago, art instructor, late 1930s; independent artist and printmaker, 1940s-; Port-au-Prince schools, Haiti, art teacher, 1950-52.
Selected awards: Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, 1945-47; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1949-50.
Addresses: Home —Apt 19E, 35 Montgomery St., New York, NY 10002.
Cortor’s instructor, Kathleen Blackshear, required her students to make repeated drawings of African sculptures, and the experience was a definitive one for Cortor. “All of a sudden I could see… and I became very excited and I wanted to participate in this in some kind of way,” Cortor was quoted as saying in A History of African-American Artists. Blackshear encouraged the young artist, bought a few of his works, and recommended him for employment with the art division of the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA Art Project put artists to work during the Depression years on public art works such as murals.
At the Art Institute, Cortor had done paintings in modern abstract styles, but when he encountered other African-American artists associated with the WPA he found that his interest in African art dovetailed with a wider effort among black intellectuals to forge a distinctive African-American sensibility in the arts. Cortor taught classes at the South Side Community Arts Center, became interested in politics, and even produced a few works in the medium that had first inspired him, the cartoon. He was part of a circle of black Chicago artists, musicians, and thinkers that in many ways rivaled the better-known Harlem Renaissance movement, and he was particularly influenced by modern dance. “I’m sort of a frustrated dancer,” he was quoted as saying in A History of African American Artists. “I do a lot of movements in my head.”
Cortor’s investigations of African roots led him to travel in 1940, with the help of a fellowship, to the isolated Sea Islands of Georgia, where many aspects of traditional African cultures still flourished. After returning home he settled in New York and began creating the works that defined his mature style. Usually they were representations of individual women: sometimes dancers, sometimes nude figures drawn with a detail inspired by the classics of European art. Often Cortor would depict a beautiful woman standing in a rundown apartment room, her body distorted or elongated in the manner of some African art traditions. Sometimes the image of the woman would appear in a mirror. These works often bore the simple title of “Room,” and Cortor, by now working in the medium of comparatively inexpensive lithographs and other prints, began to gain sales and acclaim.
His works brought to art lovers a rare mixture of technical accomplishment, African ideas, and glimpses into the world of African-American life; his representations of beautiful women among the circumstances of poverty, noted the St. James Guide to Black Artists, embodied the ideal of “grace under pressure.” One of the high points of Cortor’s career came in 1946, when Life magazine printed an image of a Cortor drawing of a nude woman. The publicity brought Cortor added attention and helped win him a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship in 1950. He used the financial proceeds from that award to re-immerse himself in African-shaped cultures, traveling to Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti, where he remained for two years, learned to speak Creole, and taught art in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
When Cortor returned to the United States, newly married to the former Sophia Schmidt (they would have four children), he found a changed country. The spirit of the WPA was dissolved, replaced by an atmosphere of anti-Communist paranoia in which suspicion fell on artists and writers associated with progressive movements. Black artists, even those like Cortor whose interest in social themes was muted, found themselves lacking art gallery representation, and their sales suffered. Cortor spent part of the 1950s in Mexico, sitting out the worst of the McCarthy-era abuses in the U.S. cultural scene and refining his printmaking techniques.
The 1960s, by contrast, proved much more congenial and, although Chicago-born black artists were slower to gain recognition than their Harlem counterparts in New York, witnessed the rediscovery of some of Cortor’s earlier work. Avoiding the gallery scene, Cortor sold his own prints through an organization called Associated American Artists, and museums began to show an interest in his works. Cortor’s works were included in major exhibitions at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1970 and at the Studio Museum of Harlem and the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, both in 1973.
Cortor’s works from later in his life, according to the St. James Guide to Black Artists, seem “to have become more occupied with graphic depiction than with any corresponding underlying mood.” Still, some were technical marvels. Still Life: Past Revisited presented a crowded corner of a room, stuffed with beautifully detailed bric-a-brac that seemed to tell a whole story of African-American life in days past. Cortor also continued to paint his trademark portraits of women, many of them now unadorned and realistic. His works were shown, along with those of Archibald Motley and Hughie Lee-Smith, in a major retrospective at New York’s Kenkeleba House in 1988, and he continued to live and work in New York into old age. A living representative of a golden age of African-American art, Cortor attracted more and more attention from curators as the years passed. Among the showings of his work in the new century was Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker, mounted at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute in 2002.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists, Pantheon, 1993.
Cederholm, Theresa Dickason, Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographical Dictionary, Trustees of the Boston Public Library, 1973.
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press, 1997.
Boston Herald, April 7, 2002, p. 65.
—James M. Manheim
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