Charles White (artist)

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Charles White
Charles White artist.jpg
Born Charles Wilbert White, Jr.
(1918-04-02)April 2, 1918
Chicago, Illinois, United States
Died October 3, 1979(1979-10-03) (aged 61)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Nationality American
Education School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Known for Painting
Movement New Negro Movement (Chicago Black Renaissance)
Spouse(s) Frances Barrett (? - his death)[1]
Elizabeth Catlett (1941 - divorced)

Charles Wilbert White, Jr. (April 2, 1918 – October 3, 1979) was an American artist known for his chronicling of African American related subjects in paintings and murals. White's best known work is The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, a mural at Hampton University. In 2018, the centenary year of his birth, the first major retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Charles Wilbert White was born on April 2, 1918, to Ethelene Gary, a domestic servant, and Charles White Sr, a railroad and construction worker, on the South Side of Chicago. Due to their poverty, his parents could not afford a babysitter while they worked, so his mother would leave him at the library. This caused a young Charles to develop an affinity towards art and reading at a young age.[3] White's mother bought him an oil paint set when White was seven years old, which hooked White on art and painting. White also played music as a child, studied modern dance, and was part of theatre groups; however, he stated that art was his true passion.

White's mother brought the young White to the Art Institute of Chicago, where he would read and look at paintings—developing a particular interest in the works of Winslow Homer and George Inness. During the Great Depression, White tried to conceal his art passion in fear of embarrassment; however, this ended when White got a job painting signs at the age of fourteen. Since White had little money growing up, he often painted on whatever surfaces he could find including shirts, cardboard, and window blinds. White later learned how to mix paints by sitting in everyday for a week on an Art Institute of Chicago painting class that was taking place at a park near his home in Chicago.[4] Ethelene re-married after White’s father passed away in 1926. She married a steel mill worker who would become an abusive alcoholic, especially towards a young White, leaving him to escape into art. This is also the same year Ethelene began sending him to Mississippi twice a year to his aunt Hasty Baines and Harriet Baines home, where he would learn about his heritage and Southern tales. This information would heavily influence his art for the rest of his career as an artist.[5]

He won a grant during the seventh grade to attend Saturday art classes at the Chicago Art Institute. After reading Alain Locke’s “The New Negro”, a critique of the Harlem Renaissance,[6] his social view changed. He learned after reading Locke’s text about important African American figures in American history, and questioned his teachers on why they were not taught to students in school, labeling him a “rebel problematic child”.[7] White did not graduate from high school, having flunked a year due to his refusal to attend class after being disillusioned with the teaching system. He was encouraged by his art teachers to submit his art works and won various scholarships that would later be taken away from him as an “error” and given to a white child instead.[8] Despite this, White received a full scholarship to be a full-time student at the Art Institute of Chicago. While in school, White cited Mitchell Siporin, Francis Chapin, and Aaron Bohrod as his influences. He was an excellent draftsman, completing five drawing courses and received a final "A grade".[9] To pay the costs of materials in art school, White became a cook, using his mother's instruction and recipes. White later became an art teacher at St. Elizabeth Catholic High School to pay for his material costs.[4] White also began working as a Works Progress Administration artist, and was later jailed for forming a union with fellow black artists who were being treated unfairly and wanted equal rights.[10]


In 1938, White was hired by the Illinois Art Project a state affiliate of the Works Progress Administration. His work received an extended showing at the Chicago Coliseum during the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro which was part of an exposition commemorating the 75th anniversary of Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery.[11] Following his first show at Paragon Studios in Cincinnati in 1938, White's work was exhibited widely throughout the United States, including, among many others, exhibitions at the Roko Gallery, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. White also showed at the Palace of Culture in Warsaw and the Pushkin Museum. His work was featured in Two Centuries of Black American Art, LACMA's first exhibition devoted exclusively to African-American Artists.[12]

White moved to New Orleans in 1941. He taught at Dillard University and was briefly married to famed sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett who also taught at Dillard. They moved to New York City and studied together at an arts collective in Mexico City. Beyond this, White also taught at the Otis Art Institute from 1965 to his death in 1979.[13] Charles White was on faculty at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles (now Otis College of Art and Design) from 1965 to 1979 where he taught many African American students who came to study with him including Alonzo Davis, David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall.[14] An elementary school was named after him and is located former Otis College campus.[15][16]

White's best known work is The Contribution of the Negro to American Democracy, a mural at Hampton University,[17] measuring around 12 feet by seven feet,[18] depicting a number of notable blacks including Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Peter Salem, George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Marian Anderson. White was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1972.

White's works are currently held at a number of institutions, including Atlanta University, the Barnett Aden Gallery, the Deutsche Academie der Kunste, the Dresden Museum of Art, Howard University, the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Oakland Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum,[19] the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Syracuse University and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The CEJJES Institute of Pomona, New York, owns a number of White's works and has established a dedicated Charles W. White Gallery.[20]

In the 1990's, the idea of staging a major retrospective exhibition arose. Ultimately, over approximately a ten year period, staff from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art attempted to locate various White pieces to put together an extensive exhibition of his work. The exhibition opened in Chicago in 2018 and travels to New York City and Los Angeles.[21][22]


  1. ^ "Paid Notice: Deaths WHITE, FRANCES BARRETT". The New York Times. 15 October 2000. Retrieved 17 June 2017. 
  2. ^ Lopez, Ruth (June 5, 2018). "Key figure of the Chicago Black Renaissance, Charles White, finally gets his due". The Art Newpaper. Retrieved 2018-06-06. 
  3. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05. 
  4. ^ a b "Oral history interview with Charles W. White, 1965 March 9", Archives of American Art, Smithsonian.
  5. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05. 
  6. ^ Sartorious, Tara Cady (February 1998). Art Across the Curriculum. Arts & Activities. pp. Vol 123, p 14–16. 
  7. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05. 
  8. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05. 
  9. ^ Wilson, Alona C. (2005). "Study of Charles White". International Review of African American Art. 20 (1): 46–47. 
  10. ^ "Charles White 1913 - 1938". Retrieved 2017-12-05. 
  11. ^ Courage, Richard A. "Charles White and the Black Chicago Renaissance". International Review of African American Art. Hampton University. Retrieved 2018-06-08. 
  12. ^ "Checklist of Artworks:" (PDF). LACMA. Retrieved December 14, 2014. 
  13. ^ Brock, Mary Sherwood, Otis Connections/ LA Printmaking in the 1960s "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-05-28. Retrieved 2010-05-18. 
  14. ^ "Charles White". Digital Archive NOW DIG THIS!: ART AND BLACK LOS ANGELES 1960–1980. Hammer Museum. Retrieved 9 October 2017. 
  15. ^ "Charles White". 
  16. ^ Office of Communications. "LACMA funding transformative renovation of Charles White Elementary School Art Gallery". LAUSD. Retrieved 9 October 2017. 
  17. ^ Hocker, Cliff. "VMFA Focus on African American Art". International Review of African American Art. Retrieved December 14, 2014. 
  18. ^ Breanne, Robertson (Spring 2016). "Pan-Americanism, Patriotism, and Race Pride in Charles White's Hampton Mural". American Art. 30 (1): pg 52–71. 
  19. ^ Moser, Joann, "A Graphic Master: Charles White", Eye Level, July 14, 2009.
  20. ^ "The Charles White Gallery", The CEJJES Institute.
  21. ^ Warnecke, Lauren (June 15, 2018). "It's a homecoming for artist Charles White at the Art Institute". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2018-06-19. 
  22. ^ Norman, Lee Ann (June 18, 2018). "Poise And Dignity In Every View, A Review of Charles White at the Art Institute of Chicago". Newcity Art. Retrieved 2018-06-19. 

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