Charles White's Depiction of Slavery is One of Dignity
Learn more about this iconic work and what inspired the artist
By Emelia Scheidt
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Charles White experienced the harsh realities of racism and poverty in America from an early age. It was his mother, a domestic worker, who instilled in her son an indomitable sense of self-worth and dignity. Every morning before work she dropped White off at the public library. There he developed a life-long passion for reading. His early exposure to the library also prompted the five year old to start drawing by copying the figures he saw in books. As a young student White often grew bored and would skip classes to wander the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, envisioning himself as an artist one day. His favorite artists were Winslow Homer and George Inness. In the seventh grade, White received a scholarship to attend Saturday art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. This was the first of a series of scholarships awarded to White as a young man and eventually the Art Institute opened its doors to the artist, awarding him a scholarship as a full-time student in 1937. The museum’s collection served as a constant inspiration from White’s early truant afternoons to eventual curriculum study. In Our Land, White borrows the pitchfork motif from American artist Grant Wood, whose iconic American Gothic was painted in 1930 and entered the museum’s collection the same year. White’s first wife, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, studied under Wood at the University of Iowa’s School of Art.
Though he grew up in Chicago and lived most of his adult life in New York, White felt an affinity for the rituals of African American culture rooted in the South. His mother was the daughter of a Mississippi slave. White finally traveled to the South himself on student fellowships in the early 1940s. Benjamin Horowitz writes, “The period of time he spent in the South was one of the most stirring and educational experiences of his life . . . in the South he learned to understand the beauty of the Negro’s speech, his folklore and poetry, his dances and music” (Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White, Los Angeles, California, 1967, p. 16). In the years that followed his Southern pilgrimage, White poignantly depicted southern slaves over and over again in his work. Our Land shows a slave woman standing on the threshold of her house looking out over the land she cultivated each day, but would never own. The boldly articulated, rounded lines deployed to depict the figure enable White to create an intimate moment of dignity. On the reverse of this panel is another of White’s slave portraits, showing workers tending a field.
White’s works appear in esteemed museum collections throughout the world, including: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Howard University Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Cover image: Charles White, American, 1918–1979. Our Land (detail), 1951. Egg tempera on panel. 24 x 20 inches. Signed and dated lower right. Private Collection.