Goodnight Irene, 1952
Oil on canvas
47 x 24 inches
Signed and dated lower right
Charles White’s paintings, monumental drawings, and murals portray the history, struggles, hopes, and triumphs of African Americans. After studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, White joined the WPA and found success in its mural division, where he worked with a number of muralists who had assisted Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. White’s distinctive handling of materials earned him the opportunity to create his first public mural,Five Great American Negroes (1939–40).
A later mural entitled Contribution of American Negro to Democracy (1943) included a portrait of Huddie Ledbetter, the composer and songwriter called Lead Belly and best known for the song “Goodnight, Irene.” White returned to the subject in this painting, capturing a poignant moment of tenderness. A young woman rests her head behind the musician, her eyes closed as she listens to him play, and the two become one seamless, undulating form.