A Graphic Master: Charles White
July 14, 2009
Joann Moser, Senior Curator, wrote the following blog post about one of our recent acquisitions to American Art's collection.
It is rare that we have an opportunity to exhibit an artwork soon after the museum acquires it, so we are particularly excited about the drawing by Charles White featured at the entrance to our current exhibition Graphic Masters II—Untitled, (1950)—a recent addition to the American Art Museum’s unparalleled collection of African American art.
Charles White (1918–1979) was a leading African American artist of the twentieth century and is best known for his masterful drawings. White grew up in poverty and faced special discrimination for his political affiliations. In searching for his pieces, we especially wanted to acquire a drawing that captured the anger and sense of displacement that fed the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s.
In this intense composition, two figures stare out of a narrow window. The young girl cradles a large doll in her arms. The doll is missing a head, arms, and feet. The larger second figure is possibly an older brother, or perhaps her mother. The cramped space of this composition, made even more confined by the two horizontal planks across the window frame, creates a feeling of tension and claustrophobia. At what are the figures looking? What is their relationship? Why is the doll missing parts of its body? Do the two boards across the window simply confine the figures, or do they also represent the restrictions imposed on people of their race? This drawing is charged with ambiguities and possibilities and seems to express the anxieties of African American people in pre-civil rights days. The subject recalls another work in our collection, Fright, a watercolor by William H. Johnson, in which a family appears frightened by an unseen threat.
When we purchased this drawing by White, the gallery had named it Untitled (Two Children). As I studied it, I realized there seems to be a significant age difference between the two figures. Although the figure at the right could be an older sibling, I think it is the girl's mother. What do you think?
Explore the slide show for Graphic Masters II: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see more images of artworks included in the exhibition. Go ahead and post here your thoughts on other pieces in the show.
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