Born in Chicago in 1918, Charles Wilbert White developed an early love of literature and art from hours spent as a child at the public library and the Art Institute of Chicago. When White was seven, his mother bought him his first set of oils, and he taught himself to use them by watching a group of art students in a nearby park. Although Chicago was a long way from the Jim Crow south, White grew up in a divided city, where he still had to contend with racism and a school system that defined history and culture exclusively in European terms. But on the extended trips he took to visit his mother’s family in Mississippi, White learned about the art, music, and history of southern black American culture. Alain Locke’s The New Negro, which White read at fourteen, also sparked a strong sense of pride in the young Artist.
In 1937, White won a scholarship to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the following year produced his first mural commission from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Five Great American Negroes (1939-1940,) in the collection of the Howard University Art Gallery in Washington DC. White also participated and exhibited with the Arts and Crafts Guild, where he became one of the most prominent figures to emerge from the Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 40s, alongside artists William Edouard Scott, Archibald Motley Jr. and Eldzier Cortor.
Charles White went on to execute several murals in various cities throughout the United States, commissioned by the WPA or other institutions. His work showed the influence of the styles of leading Mexican muralists, reflecting his studies with David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera at the Taller de Gráfica Popular in Mexico City. In 1942, a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship enabled him to move to New York, where White studied with Harry Sternberg to learn additional lithography and etching techniques at The Art Students League. The fellowship also led to the research and completion of the Artist’s best-known mural, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America (1943), installed at Hampton University in Virginia. White completed other important mural commissions for the Chicago Public Library (1940) and the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Library in Los Angeles (1978).
Believing that “any human being without a history is a barren human being,” White dedicated his career to telling the history of Africans and African Americans.(1) As David Driskell has noted, “White made positive portrayals of his people with symbols relevant to the harsh social and political climate of the time, because he had experienced that climate as a black artist and knew firsthand how long change took in this nation, particularly in his lifetime.”(2) Although he received acclaim for his many murals, White moved away from painting in the 1950s and began to work almost exclusively on paper. Executed in charcoal and sepia tones, the drawings, linocuts, and woodcuts of Charles White depicted their subjects in monumental, rounded forms. His art celebrated historical figures in the fight against slavery—such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln—and White also created emblematic images of ordinary black people—farmers, preachers, mothers, and other workers.
Charles White moved to Los Angeles in 1956, and later taught at the Otis Art Institute where he influenced the next generation of prominent African American artists like Alonzo Davis, David Hammons and Kerry James Marshall. He remained in California until his death in 1979.
In 2018, a major retrospective of works by Charles White was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, the first major exhibition of his work since a 1982 retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Works by Charles White are represented in numerous museum collections, including Los Angeles County Museum of Art (CA), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY), Minneapolis Institute of Art (MN), Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (MO), The Newark Museum of Art (NJ), Smithsonian American Art Museum (DC), Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VA) and Whitney Museum of American Art (NY).
(1) Charles White, radio interview conducted in the late 1960s (interviewer as yet unknown), from The Charles White Archives
(2) David C. Driskell, “Foreword,” Andrea D. Barnwell, Charles White (The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art: Volume I) (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2002), v.