Elizabeth Catlett: Centennial Birthday of an American Artist

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). Pensive, 1985. Lithograph. Purchase with the Samuel B. Cummings (Class of 1926) Art Fund, 2001.573.
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). “Pensive,” 1985. Lithograph. Purchase with the Samuel B. Cummings (Class of 1926) Art Fund, 2001.573

The strong, defined face of Elizabeth Catlett’s subject in Pensive, which entered the Mead’s collection in 2001, is representative of Catlett’s artistic work and motivations. Cropped dark hair frames the woman’s face, and light falls on her forehead, cheeks, and nose, contrasting with her dark eyes and lips. Her chin ends sharply, and light and shadow highlight her straight nose and cheekbones. The slight creases beneath her eyes suggest weariness, but her straightforward and determined gaze conveys resilience and perseverance.

Catlett, born in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1915, worked as a sculptor and printmaker in the United States and Mexico until her death, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2012. After graduating from Howard University in 1935, Catlett completed an MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. At Iowa she studied under the Regionalist painter Grant Wood, best known for his painting American Gothic and depictions of the American Midwest.

As an African American woman who pursued art from a young age, Catlett faced obstacles in her education and artistic opportunities. She won a scholarship to attend the Carnegie Institute of Technology, but the college refused to admit her when they discovered that she was black. While teaching at Dillard University later in her career, Catlett wanted to take her students to a Picasso exhibition at the Delgado Museum of Art, but the museum did not allow African Americans. Catlett refused to accept the museum’s rejection, and convinced the museum to let her students visit on a day when it was closed to the public. She always felt driven to bring art to the widest possible audience, and never underestimated her students, regardless of their education.

Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915-2012). "I Have Special Reservations," 1946. Linoleum cut. Leslie J. Garfield Fund, 241.1991. Museum of Modern Art.
Elizabeth Catlett (American and Mexican, 1915–2012). “I Have Special Reservations,” 1946. Linoleum cut. Leslie J. Garfield Fund, 241.1991, MoMA

Catlett’s body of artistic work contains many portraits of famous African Americans as well as anonymous black women. Her well-known series of linoleum cuts entitled The Negro Woman (1946–47) includes subjects such as Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth—women she referred to as her “sheroes.” The linoleum cut from this series I Have Special Reservations depicts Rosa Parks with dignity and strength, just like the subject of Pensive. In addition to her portraits of famous US women, Catlett is well known for works depicting unknown women and sculptures that meditate on the relationship between mothers and children.

At various points throughout her career Catlett was involved with the cultural and political issues of the places she lived in, from Washington, DC, to Mexico City, where she moved in the 1940s as a result of American political repression and lived for the remainder of her life, becoming a Mexican citizen. She taught at many high schools and universities with the hope of bringing art to a diverse audience; in turn, she was inspired to create art that many people could relate to and understand.

“I have always wanted my art to service my people,” Catlett once said, according to the New York Times article written shortly after her death. “To reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

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