White, Charles 1918–1979
Charles White 1918–1979
The drawings, paintings, and lithographs of Charles White capture “the vitality and poignancy of humankind for the eye to see and the heart to feel,” wrote Benjamin Horowitz in Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White .White’s images of the black experience are held in the collections of Atlanta University, Howard University, North Carolina Central University, the Whitney Museum, the Library of Congress, the Joseph H. Hirschhorn Collection, and the American Federation of the Arts, as well as museums in Mexico, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, South America, China, and the Soviet Union. “All of his art is a testimony to the vitality of American culture,” Harry Belafonte wrote in the foreword to White’s 1967 book Images of Dignity .“And his art is tremendously American. He is an artist of world renown and this work has a universality which transcends the various schools of painting and which will withstand the merciless test of time and space from here to the very end of time.”
White was born on April 2, 1918, in Chicago, the sole child of Ethel Gary and Charles White, Sr., a Creek Indian. As a boy, White drew what was around him in his Chicago neighborhood; dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn streets were the subjects of his childhood drawings. White’s father, a railroad and construction worker, died when White was just eight years old, and his mother remarried a man named Clifton Marsh. Marsh’s alcohol abuse brought that marriage to an end after a few years, and from then on it was just White and his mother, who was a domestic worker. White ran errands, shined shoes, cleaned houses, and swept stoops to add to their finances. The Great Depression was taking its toll on working families while social consciousness was beginning to awaken.
White’s artistic inclinations became clear to his mother when, at age seven, he removed the window shades from one of the homes she was working in to use as canvasses. She tried to replace his paints with a violin, but her influence did not take; he attended Chicago art lectures and classes whenever he could. His favorite artists at the time were Winslow Homer and George Innes, and he also was a voracious reader. At 14 he began working as a sign painter. White’s previously impressive academic record took a turn once he entered high school. His interest in school waned and, after all the reading he had done, was discouraged by the history he was learning in school. Nowhere in his American history books were African Americans depicted as proud or confident. Soon, White’s boredom and resentment led to truancy. Interestingly, White did not skip school to cause trouble—he often spent his school days reading at the public library and wandering among the galleries of the Chicago Art Institute. He became involved with an informal group of young black artists called the Arts and Crafts Guild that, through a series of fundraisers, earned enough to send one of its members to art school one night per week. That
At a Glance…
Born Charles Wilbert White on April 2, 1918, in Chicago, IL; died on October 3, 1979; married Elizabeth Catlett (divorced); married Frances White; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Art Institute of Chicago, 1937; Art Students League, New York; Taller de Grafica, Mexico. Military service: Army Corps of Engineers, corporal, 1941.
Career: South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, teacher, 1939-40; Howard University, Washington, DC, artist-in-residence, 1945; Otis Art Institute, Los Angeles, teacher, 1965-79.
Memberships: Executive board, Black Academy of Arts and Letters; Otis Art Association; National Conference of Artists; Pasadena Society of Artists; National Academy of Design; board of directors, National Center of Afro-American Artists.
Awards: Edward B. Alfred Award, 1946; Purchase awards, Atlanta University, 1946, 1951, 1959, 1961; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1952; Atlanta University Award, 1953; John Hay Whitney Fellowship, 1955; Gold Medal, International Show, Germany, 1960, 1965; Purchase Award, Howard University, 1961; Childe Hassam Award, American Academy of Art, 1965; Adolph and Clara Obrig Prize, 1971 and 1975; Isaac N. Maynard Prize, 1972. Honorary doctorate: Columbia University, 1969.
member would then come back to the group and retell all he had learned.
While he was on academic probation at school, White excelled in his art classes. Still, he had to remain in high school an extra year to make up his grades, but earned a year’s scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied after high school. He worked as a valet and cook and taught drawing classes to cover his expenses, and managed to finish his two-year course of study in one year. White made his first lithograph at age 17 while at the Art Institute, and fell in love with the printing process. “I’ve always been turned on by lithography,” White is quoted as saying in a 1971 exhibition catalog, “but there hasn’t always been the opportunity to do it because of the physical difficulties involved. I haven’t always had the availability of a press, but whenever I have had the opportunity, I’ve always been excited about lithographs.”
Like many gifted artists of his generation, White joined the Works Project Administration and, in 1940, was commissioned to create a mural depicting the history of the American Negro Press. In 1941, White married a well-educated and accomplished sculptor, Alice Elizabeth Catlett. Also that year, he earned a Rosenwald grant, which he used to tour the southern United States. “In this process of rediscovering America, the racial forms and subjects which hereto had been kept in the background of Negro art assumed a prominent place in the foreground,” White is quoted as saying in Images of Dignity .“To the lasting benefit, I believe, of American art.” On his trip he made a series of sketches that evolved into a 18-by-20-foot mural depicting African-American history in the United States that took him nine months to complete.
In 1944 White was drafted into the army, where he was assigned to paint camouflage. While he was stationed in Missouri, he developed pleurisy and was hospitalized. He then was discovered to have tuberculosis, was given a medical discharge from the service, and spent the next three years in a Veterans’ Administration Hospital.
Upon his release from the hospital, White and his wife settled in New York City. By 1947 White had his first one-man show there, which kindled a worldwide interest in his work. “Charles White’s work has force and conviction,” a New York Times critic wrote. “Something of the throbbing emotion of Negro spirituals comes through. A restrained stylization of the big forms keeps them from being too overpowering. This is very moving work.” In the ensuing years, collectors and museums in the United States and Europe acquired and exhibited many of his pieces.
In the late 1930s, White became aware of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who was painting murals in the United States at the time. Controversial for his politics, Rivera’s murals depicting the struggles of the working class are well known. “I found a strong affinity in terms of my goals as an artist and what they represented,” White said in the 1971 catalog. “I am concerned about my fellow man with the survival of man with the progress that man has made in relation to his fellow man, in relation to nature, in trying to find a more beautiful way of life.” White traveled to Mexico in the late-1940s to make prints at the renowned graphics workshop Taller de Grafica in Mexico City. He stayed and worked in Mexico for two years, meeting the leading Mexican artists of the time, including Rivera. After a year-long artist-in-residency at Howard University, White returned to New York for a lung operation and spent another year in the hospital. He and his wife then divorced, after which he suffered another physical breakdown and another chest surgery.
After his recuperation White returned to work and became involved with the New York Graphic Workshop, which was similar to Mexico’s Taller de Grafica. He also became part of the city’s thriving black intellectual community, and lived in the same apartment building as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, Thurgood Marshall, and Duke Ellington. New York City influenced White’s work as an adult as Chicago had in his youth.
At the heart of White’s work was his need to explore the universal conflicts that plague all humankind. Human relationships, social or economic struggles, love and hate, justice and injustice were among the themes of his work. “I deal with ideas as an educator or a philosopher,” White is quoted as saying in the 1971 exhibition catalog. “This is my life’s work, and I treat this responsibility very seriously.” Harry Belafonte commented in the foreword to White’s 1967 book, Images of Dignity: “There is a powerful, sometimes violent beauty in his artistic interpretation of Negro Americana. There is the poetic beauty of Negro idiom. This is the artist’s most profound contribution, and it is significant that his art has never strayed far afield from the roots which gave birth to the artist himself.”
As White’s work became more popular and more valuable, White began to notice a trend among his collectors that he had never intended—most of the people who bought his art were upper-or middle-class individuals or museums. “The primary audience that I was addressing myself to was really the masses of black people,” White said in the 1971 catalog, “and they were not turning out in hundreds to see my shows, and I had to find some way of reaching them, since my subject matter was related to them and should be made available to them.” To this end, White later published inexpensive portfolios of his work: Portfolio of Six Drawings —The Art of Charles White, Portfolio 10/Charles White, and Portfolio 6/Charles White.
White met and married Frances Barrett, a social worker, in 1950. White was a member of the Committee on the Arts, whose membership included Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Both entertainers would become serious collectors and champions of his work. Though he was enjoying critical and popular success in New York, White’s work could not break all the boundaries of racism in America during the era. His work was included in an exhibition of black artists at the University of Alabama, but the artists were not allowed toattend. The Delgado Museum in New Orleans purchased one of White’s paintings, but denied the artist admission.
White found his work very widely known throughout Europe on a 1951 trip there with his wife. He was received as a distinguished guest in France, England, Italy, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the former Soviet Union. Throughout Europe, White was amazed not only by how his work was celebrated, but how his skin color was not a concern as he moved freely through the streets. In 1952 the Whitney Museum purchased White’s Preacher for its permanent collection.
The Whites moved to California in 1956, and from then on he was known as a Los Angeles artist. White, his wife, and their two adopted children lived at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Altadena, a Los Angeles suburb. They fell in love with the sunshine, nature, and wide open spaces of California. He had several one-man shows in Los Angeles, and was represented by the Heritage Gallery there. In 1965 he began teaching at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and continued to teach there until his death in 1979. In 1966 the artist was commissioned to do Exodus II by Gemini G.E.L. gallery in Los Angeles. White was not as involved in California arts organizations as he had been in New York, instead focusing on his teaching and his work. He thrived on the energy of his students. He also was given to sitting on gallery floors, talking about art with visiting groups of school children who visited his shows.
White lived passionately, joyfully, and with dignity. His works speak of the aspirations of all people, regardless of race or creed. Still, when asked why he only painted blacks, White responded, “I am a Negro in America,” in Images of Dignity .“I relate to images that are meaningful to me, images that are closest to me. I use that as a springboard to deal with the more broad and the more all-encompassing.” “Throughout his career, White was a noble voice for his race,” critic Clarence V. Reynolds wrote in Black Issues Book Review .“An artist of incredible talent, White’s oeuvre testifies to the sentiment that reflects both the strength and suffering that characterize the African-American experience.” White died on October 3, 1979.
(with Benjamin Horowitz) Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, 1967.
Atlanta University, Georgia.
Barnett Aden Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Deutsche Academie der Kunste, Berlin.
Dresden Museum of Art.
George Cleveland Branch, Chicago Public Library.
Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Los Angeles State University.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Oakland Museum, California.
Syracuse University, New York.
Paragon Studios, Cincinnati, 1938.
Howard University, Washington, D.C, 1939.
Tanner Art Galleries, Chicago, 1940.
ACA Gallery, New York, 1941.
Institute of Modern Art, Boston, 1943.
University of Chicago, 1944.
Roko Gallery, New York, 1949.
Palace of Culture, Warsaw, 1967.
Kunstnernus Hus, Oslo, 1968.
Pushkin Museum, Moscow, 1968.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1969.
La Jolla Museum of Art, California, 1970.
White, Charles, and Benjamin Horowitz, Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, Ward Ritchie Press, Los Angeles, 1967.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 11, 2000, p. LI; June 23, 2000, p. PI.
Black Issues Book Review, November/December 2002, p. 13.
New Crisis (Baltimore), January/February 1999, p. 60.
New York Times, July 15, 2002, p. B2.
Washington Post, December 10, 1999, p. N62.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through the Three Graphic Artists: Charles White, David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Catalog of an exhibition held at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, January 26-March 7, 1971, and Santa Barbara Museum of Art, March 20-April 18, 1971.
(b.Manchester, England, 4 October 1728; d. Sale, Cheshire, England, 20 February 1813), obstertrics, surgery.
White received his early education in Manchester and was apprenticed in medicine to his father, Thomas White. He subsequently studied in London, where he was greatly influenced by John and William Hunter, and in Edinburgh. He then joined his father in practice and soon achieved a reputation in surgery and obstetrics. White helped to found the Manchester Infirmary (1752)and served as its chief surgeon until 1790. He took a leading part in establishing the lying-in Charity Hospital (1790), now known as St. Mary’s Hospital, and served on its staff. He was also a founder of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1781). On 18 February 1762 White was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Corporation (now the Royal College) of Surgeons of London. The first to lecture on anatomy in Manchester, he eventually became the most eminent surgeon in the north of England. In 1803 an eye infection affected his vision; and in 1811 he retired to Sale, where he died completely blind.
White possessed great stamina, an acute and agile mind, and a forceful character tinged with arrogance. His contributions to surgery were extensive, and he introduced conservative techniques. Stimulated by John Hunter, he studied gradation in animals and plants and in 1799 published a suggestive treatise on evolution, unknown to Darwin, in which he rejected the idea that acquired characteristics could become hereditary. For the study of skulls upon which this work is based, White has been called the founder of anthropometry. His main fame, however, derives from his work in obstetrics. Alexander Gordon (1795), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1843), and Ignaz Semmelweis (1847) are correctly given credit for discovering the infectious nature of puerperal fever. Nevertheless, White, although unaware of its causative agent, recognized some of the associated etiological factors and instituted prophylaxis and therapy accordingly. He was the first to insist on absolute cleanliness during delivery and was thus a pioneer in aseptic midwifery. Together with his absolute account of puerperal fever (1773), his recognition of “white leg” (1784), and his enlightened approach to obstetrics in general, it brought him widespread recognition.
I. Original Works. White’s main works were A Treatise on the Management of pregnant and Lying-in Women… (London, 1773, 1777, 1784, 1791), repr. in J. George Adami, Charles White of Manchester (1728– 1813), and the Arrest of puerperal Fever (London, 1922), also in French (Paris, 1774), American (Worcester, Mass., 1793), and German eds. (Leipzig, 1775); and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Cause of That Swelling in One or Both of the Lower Extremities Which Sometimes Happens to Lying-in Women, 2 vols. (Warrington, 1784–London, 1801)
A list of his surgical writings is in J. E. Dezeimeris, Dictionnaire historique de la médecine, IV (Paris, 1839), 402–403. He also published An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables and From the Former to the Latter (London, 1799); and three papers of less importance in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 51 (1760) and 59 (1769).
II. Secondary Literature. Adami (see above), with portrait, makes unwarranted claims for White, as do Charles J. Cullingworth, Charles White, F.R.S., a Great Provincial Surgeon and Obstetrician of the 18th Century (London, 1904), and Lancet (1903), 2 , 1071-1076. Edward A. Schumann, “Charles White and His Contribution to the knowledge of Puerperal Sepsis,” in Medical Life, 36 (1929), 257–270, gives a more balanced judgement of his work. See also E. M. Brockbank, Sketches of the Lives and Work of the Honorary Staff of the Manchester Infirmary (Manchester, 1904), 28–65, with a list of local biographical sources; Dictionary of National Biography, xxi, 33–34; and H. Thoms, Classical Contributions to Obstetrics and Gynecology (Springfield, III., 1935), 170–178, with extracts from his book of 1773.