Catlett, Elizabeth 1919(?)–
Elizabeth Catlett 1919(?)–
Sculptor, printmaker, painter
Acclaimed for her figurative sculptures and lithographs, Elizabeth Catlett has been one of the most prominent black artists of the last 50 years. Known for her technical accomplishment, Catlett specializes in realistic art that shows her concern for preserving black cultural traditions, especially as represented in the lives of everyday, working-class people. Since the 1940s she has worked according to her belief that art should be for the benefit of all people, and not for what she termed “the exclusive domain of the elect” in The Art of Elizabeth Catlett. This objective has forged for her a cultural relationship with the country of Mexico, where she moved in the mid-1940s and of which she became a citizen in 1962. “Neither the masses of black people nor Mexican people have the time or the money to develop formal aesthetic appreciation,” Catlett remarked in Ebony. “And so I try to reach them intuitively because they have an intuitive appreciation, and thus help, if I can, their aesthetic development.”
Catlett has made her reputation particularly by depicting themes related to black women, especially the bonds of maternal love. She has also concentrated on portraying figures of black history, such as Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, and Phillis Wheatley, as well as other prominent blacks like musician Louis Armstrong. “I have always wanted my art to service Black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential,” she commented to Samella Lewis in Art: African American. “Learning how to do this and passing that learning on to other people have been my goals.” Catlett embraced her role as a black artist in the early 1940s when a position as an adult-education teacher inspired her to use art as a vehicle to teach blacks about their culture. “Up until then I guess I didn’t have any artist’s philosophy about what I was doing and why, except that I was working with Black subject matter,” she told Stephanie Stokes Oliver in Essence. “But then I realized that I had to work for every kind of Black people.”
Catlett was born to a middle-class family in Washington, D.C. Her father, who worked as a mathematics professor at Tuskegee University and for the Washington public school system, died before she was born; Catlett was raised by her mother, who worked as a truant officer. Around the age of 13 Catlett chose to become an artist, a decision which, despite the dire economic straits of
Born April 15, 1919 (one source says 1915), in Washington, DC; daughter of John H. (a mathematics professor) and Mary (a truant officer; maiden name, Carson) Catlett; married Charles White (an artist), c. 1941 (divorced); married Francisco Mora (an artist), May 31, 1946; children: (second marriage) Francisco, Juan, David. Education: Howard University, B.S. (cumlaude), 1935; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1940; studied at Art Institute of Chicago, 1941, Art Students’ League (New York City), 1943, and Esmeralda, Escuela de Pintura y Escultura (Mexico City), 1948; private study with Ossip Zadkine, 1943.
Sculptor, printmaker, and painter. Teacher in North Carolina; Dillard University, head of Art Department, c. early 1940s; Hampton Institute, instructor, c. early 1940s; George Washington Carver School, New York City, adult-education teacher, c. mid-1940s; National School of Fine Arts, National Autonomous University of Mexico, San Carlos, professor of sculpture, 1959-73. Has exhibited work throughout the United States and Mexico, and in Europe.
Awards: First prize, American Negro Exposition (Chicago), 1940; first prize in sculpture, Golden Jubilee National Exposition (Chicago), 1941; Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant, c. 1940s; second prize in sculpture, Atlanta University Annual, 1946 and 1956; Tlatilco Prize, First Sculpture Biannual (Mexico), 1962; Xipe Totec Prize, Second Sculpture Biannual (Mexico), 1964; first prize in sculpture, Atlanta University Annual, 1965; first purchase prize, National Print Salon (Mexico), 1969; Intergrafic Exhibition prize (Berlin), 1970; Women’s Caucus for Art award, National Congress (San Francisco), 1981; Brandywine Workshop award, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1982; purchase prize, Salon de la Plastica Mexicana, Drawing Salon (Mexico), 1985.
Addresses: Home —375 South End Ave., New York, NY 10280-1018.
blacks at the time, was supported by her mother. “I was very fortunate because my mother helped all of [her children] do what we wanted to do,” Catlett told New Orleans contributor Joe Bacon. “And in black families, during that period, and even today, mothers want their daughters to do something certain, so they’ll have security.” Always interested in painting and drawing, Catlett completed her first sculpture in high school, “an Ivory soap sculpture of an elephant,” she reported to Oliver in Essence. “At night I was lying in bed thinking, ‘How can I make it more like an elephant?’ And what I was really thinking was, ‘How can I make it more three-dimensional?’ I imagined how it should be, then I went back to school the next day and did it.”
Catlett pursued art at Howard University, where she majored in design and also studied printmaking, drawing, and art history. In 1934 she began work in the mural division of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project and became familiar with the art of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias. After graduating with honors in 1936, she took a high school teaching job in North Carolina, but—frustrated by the low teaching salaries afforded blacks—left after a year. She travelled north to the University of Iowa, where she studied sculpture formally for the first time, and earned the first ever Master of Fine Arts degree conferred by the university for sculpture. At Iowa Catlett was influenced by American landscape painter Grant Wood, who urged his students to master technical and formal disciplines on their way to working with, as Catlett recalled to John Zinsser in 50 Plus, “subject matter that we know best.” For Catlett this meant “black people, especially black women”; it was then that she began in earnest to depict the themes and lives of black people in her art.
Catlett’s graduate thesis—a sculpture of a black mother and child—received first prize in the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago in 1940, and Catlett began to be recognized as an artist of not only technical accomplishment, but one with a deeply felt purpose and artistic theme. After earning her M.F.A. she combined her artistic career with further study and teaching, and for two years served as head of the art department at New Orleans’s Dillard University. Around this time she married artist Charles White; the couple eventually moved to Virginia, where Catlett became employed as an instructor at the Hampton Institute. They then relocated to New York City’s Harlem, where Catlett worked as an adult-education teacher at the George Washington Carver School—an illuminating experience that helped her realize more fully the foundation of her art: “working for people.” Catlett continued to develop as an artist and gained further recognition through exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the University of Chicago, the Newark Museum, and the Albany Institute of History and Art.
A turning point came in 1946 when she received the Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship and decided to produce a series of works dedicated to black women. Shortly thereafter Catlett and her husband accepted an invitation to work at Mexico City’s Taller de Grafica Popular (TGP), a collective graphic arts and mural workshop where artists dedicated themselves to portraying everyday life in Mexico. The atmosphere at the workshop had an important influence on Catlett’s own socially conscious art. “Everybody offered something—and when you saw the product, even if you were weak, you saw a collective product that you had helped form,” she was quoted as saying in Art: African American. “It was a great social experience, because I learned how you use your art for service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful.” While at the workshop Catlett produced a celebrated series of linocuts of black laborers, artists, and farmers entitled “The Negro Woman,” which resulted in her first solo exhibition, held at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., from 1947 to 1948.
Catlett was divorced in the mid-1940s, and in 1946 married Francisco Mora, a Mexican artist celebrated for his portraits of Mexico’s working class. Catlett and Mora both found themselves under government pressure in the 1950s because of rumored Communist ties involving the TGP. For Catlett the pressure was great enough to inspire her to permanently relocate to Mexico—which had, as a whole, provided a particularly fruitful working climate. Catlett’s work was featured in exhibits throughout Mexico, and she also received numerous commissions to create sculptures and lithographs. In 1959 she was the first woman appointed professor of sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts in San Carlos—a position she held until 1973. In 1962 Catlett became a citizen of Mexico, a decision she claims was made so that she could become more involved in Mexican politics, and not as a protest against the U.S. government. “I changed my citizenship because I had been living in Mexico since 1946, and I’m a political person, an activist,” she explained in Essence. “I couldn’t do anything political in Mexico unless I was a citizen.”
It was not until 1971 that Catlett was granted a travel visa—which she received in order to attend a retrospective exhibition of her works held in New York City—to return to the United States. From the 1960s through the 1980s she garnered much critical recognition in both the United States and Mexico, receiving numerous awards and commissions. Catlett’s most famous pieces include 1980’s “Maternity,” a sculpture in black marble depicting a mother and child that, according to Theresa A. Leininger in Notable Black American Women, represents the child “symbolically at once in the uterus, and always in the mother’s heart.” Another sculpture, 1968’s “Black Unity,” shows two African women’s faces side-by-side, brought together in the shape of a fist at the back of their heads. Critics have commented that Catlett’s work is especially powerful in its blend of American, African, Mexican, and Indian art traditions, as well as classical European influences. She prefers working at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a small town outside of Mexico City, where she and Mora share a house with adjacent studios, though she also maintains a home in New York City.
Although Catlett has gained much critical acclaim for her work, she prefers to stay outside the professional circles of the art world. “I try to keep away from galleries; they flatter you, seduce you, they buy and sell you,” she explained in Art: African American. “If we can just get away from what’s supposed to be the way of doing things, of doing the same fads in art and taking it to the galleries and charging higher and higher prices and creating less and less. And trying to be different, superficially, and ignoring our people, saying, ‘We are artists, first, and then Black.’” Commenting on her passionate need to represent the human form, Catlett told Bacon in New Orleans, “I want the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing. Working, figuratively, is the dues I must, want and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work and not get lost trying to figure out what it means. True art always comes from a cultural necessity.”
Lewis, Samella, Art: African American, Harcourt, 1978.
Lewis, Samella, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, Hancraft Studios, 1984.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1991.
Art in America, March 1990.
Essence, July 1985.
50 Plus, December 1985.
New Orleans, February 1984.
—Michael E. Mueller
April 15, 1919
The youngest of three children, printmaker and sculptor Elizabeth Catlett was educated at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. Her father, John Catlett, taught at Tuskegee Institute and in the D.C. public schools. He died before her birth. Her mother, Mary Carson Catlett, worked as a truant officer.
Catlett graduated cum laude from Howard University School of Art in 1937, studying with James Herring, James Porter (drawing), James Wells (printmaking), and Lois Mailou Jones (design). In 1940 Catlett earned the M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa. She studied with painter Grant Wood and changed her concentration from painting to sculpture. In 1941 her thesis project, a marble sculpture titled Mother and Child, took first prize in the American Negro Exposition in Chicago.
From 1940 to 1942 Catlett was head of the Art Department at Dillard University. Among her students was Samella Sanders (Lewis), who became a lifelong friend and her biographer. In the summer of 1941 Catlett studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago. She met and married Charles White. Over six years they spent time in Chicago, where she worked at the South Side Art Center; New York, where she studied with sculptor Ossip Zadkine (1942 and 1943); and Hampton Institute, where she taught sculpture (1943). She came to believe that graphics was the appropriate medium to reach large, diverse audiences, and in 1944 she studied lithography at the Art Students' League in New York.
In 1945 Catlett received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation award to do a series on African-American women. She and White traveled to Mexico to work at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. She also studied sculpture at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura with Francisco Zúñiga and wood carving with José L. Ruiz. After a brief period in New York when she divorced, she returned to Mexico. In 1947 she married Mexican artist Francisco Mora, and the two had three sons, Francisco, Juan, and David. The two artists remained part of the Taller de Gráfica Popular until 1966.
In 1958 Catlett became the first woman to teach at the National University of Mexico's School of Fine Arts. From 1959 until her retirement from teaching in 1976, she served as the head of the school's sculpture department.
Catlett's work combines realism and abstract art. Much of her work deals with African-American women: the mother-and-child theme is strong and recurring. Her art reflects her concern with the needs and aspirations of common people, the poor, and the oppressed. The influence of Mexican as well as African-American culture is evident. Her sculpture, which ranges from monumental to small, is in wood, bronze, stone, terra-cotta, or marble. Works on paper are lithographs, linocuts, woodcuts, collographs, and serigraphs. Among the most well known are Sharecropper (1968) and Malcolm X Speaks for Us (1969).
Beginning in 1940 Catlett's work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions. It is included in over two dozen prestigious public collections and in many books, catalogs, periodicals, and film and video productions. She has received awards in several countries. Elizabeth Catlett correctly has been called a pioneer and one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. In 2003 she received the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center. She and her husband live in Cuernavaca and New York City.
Lewis, Samella. The Art of Elizabeth Catlett. Claremont, Calif.: Hancraft Studios, 1984.
Lewis, Samella, and Richard Powell. Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944–1992. Hampton, Va.: Hampton University Museum, 1993.
Lewis, Samella, and Ruth Waddy. Black Artists on Art. Vol. 2. Los Angeles: Contemporary Crafts, 1971.
Sims, Lowery Stokes. Elizabeth Catlett: Sculpture. New York: June Kelly Gallery, n.d.
jeanne zeidler (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005