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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.

Charles White

Untitled, by Charles White, 1950, ink and graphite on paper, 29 3/4 x 20 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Julie Seitzman and museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

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 IIUntitled, (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.

Posted by Jeff on July 14, 2009 in American Art Here


I am drawn to believe that the figures in Charles White's Untitled are mother and child. There is something feminine about the more mature figure as well as the shape of a blouse with cuffs above her elbow. What do the figures gaze upon? I don't think it is necessarily a something. I think the mother figure is pensive, maybe even praying. The child appears sad and anxious. The fingers of each figure captivate me. With the young girl the fingers seem to meld with the doll, and with both figures, the fingers seem to act as a chiseled wall or perhaps a shield that separates these oppressed figures from their feelings - or protect them.

I find the two figures, which I see as a mother and her child, quite haunting. The home has no pictures or decorations on the wall, it is barren, and they are looking out of a window patched with wooden planks that conveys a sense of poverty. Is the mother holding the daughter's hand as they watch out the window, is it with a sense of anguish or anticipation?

I would like more information on Charles White's work.

Kevin, here is some biographical information on Charles White and a link to other pieces we have of his in our collection. I hope this helps.

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