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

On Being a Work of Art

One should either be a work of art or wear a work of art.
— Oscar Wilde

Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987), Robin and Abby Weisman, 1977 August, Large Format Polaroid photograph, MH 2008.3.91, Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Andy Warhol (American, 1928–1987). “Robin and Abby Weisman,” August 1977. Large format Polaroid photograph. Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. Gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, 2008.3.91
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941), Three Girls in Plaid, 10/1086, 1986, Gelatin silver print, AC 1993.53.10, Gift of Stanley and Diane Person
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941). “Three Girls in Plaid,” 1986. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.10 

In these two photographs of young girls — one by Andy Warhol from the collection of the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, the other by Mary Ellen Mark, in the Mead’s collection — the girls are the focus. Their clothes — matching collared dresses in one and plaid jumpers in the other — are recognizable markers of innocence and youth. There’s nothing unique about these dresses. The works derive their power and sense of art from the way the girls make the viewer feel. In both photographs the girls look directly into the lens with solemn expressions that show confidence and independence. Warhol and Mark strip away preconceptions about children’s naïveté to bring these pictures beyond visual appeal and into the realm of art.

Alen MacWeeney, Irish (born 1939), Bridesmaids Dresses, Aran Islands, 1985, printed later, Photograph Endura c-print, AC 2009.224.1, Gift of Loretta Ippolito Zetterstrom (Class of 1985) and Erik Zetterstrom
Alen MacWeeney (Irish, born 1939). “Bridesmaids Dresses, Aran Islands,” 1985. Endura c-print. Gift of Loretta Ippolito Zetterstrom (Class of 1985) and Erik Zetterstrom, 2009.224.1
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941), "Two Girls in Dresses on Lawn, Miami, 10/1986," 1986. Photograph. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.7
Mary Ellen Mark (American, born 1941). “Two Girls in Dresses on Lawn, Miami,” 1986. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Stanley and Diane Person, 1993.53.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Alen MacWeeney’s Bridesmaids Dresses and Mary Ellen Mark’s Two Girls on a Lawn, Miami, the photographers focus on pairs of dresses that are more elaborate, special-occasion creations. But are they works of art? The two powder-blue, tulle dresses in MacWeeney’s photograph hang on a clothesline from cheap plastic hangers. They sway on the line, worn only by the wind, perhaps drying from revelries the night before or in preparation for a wedding ceremony soon to come. Surrounded by the bleak gray stones and hazy sky of the sparsely populated Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland, the blue dresses are a source of light and joy. In Mark’s photo, meanwhile, two young women sit side by side on the ground in long white dresses, their skirts spread across the grass in circles that echo the umbrellas behind them. With their hands folded in their laps, they tilt their heads and look into the camera. These photographs are aesthetically pleasing in their compositions, one of the formal features that makes something a work of art. The photographer frames the dresses — and dresses the frame — for the viewer, and it is for the viewer to judge the works as art.

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017

Who Wore It Better? The Presidential Look

Fremont
John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). John Charles Frémont, ca. 1859. Engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, LC-DIG-pga-00431
Lincoln Beardless_crop
John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). Abraham Lincoln, Second state. 1860. Engraving. Gift of Mr. Grosvenor Hyde Backus, Class of 1894, AC 1947.139

These two mid-nineteenth-century engravings look very similar. Abraham Lincoln, the beloved sixteenth president, and John C. Frémont, the first Republican presidential candidate, who later became senator from California, stand in identical poses, left hands on their hips and right hands resting on a document on the table beside them. They are shown wearing the same jacket, trousers, and shoes, in what seems to be the very same room, with identical furnishings. Even the same books lean against the chair’s leg.

Both prints are the work of John Chester Buttre, a well-known publisher and engraver based in New York. Buttre recycled the plate he had used for Frémont’s portrait to produce Lincoln’s when Lincoln received the Republican Party’s endorsement in May 1860. The most significant alteration, of course, is the replacement of Frémont’s head with Lincoln’s, evidence of which is seen in the lighter region that surrounds Lincoln’s head like a halo. Other minor details are changed as well: the large world globe that stands on the table in Frémont’s portrait, recalling his life as an explorer before he entered politics, is replaced by a small lamp in Lincoln’s, and Lincoln’s smaller tie, revealing more of his collar, replaces the larger cravat around Frémont’s neck. Interestingly, the photographer Matthew Brady, in his photograph of Lincoln from February 1860 that likely served as the model for this engraving, enlarged Lincoln’s collar to make his neck appear less scrawny. Lincoln is reported to have said that “Brady and the Cooper Institute [where he delivered his famous Cooper Union address] made me president.”

Lincoln’s portrait underwent another interesting metamorphosis in the printer’s studio. There’s a third, nearly identical print — also by Buttre and in the Mead’s collection — in which Lincoln is portrayed wearing a beard. Lincoln did in fact grow a beard, inspired — at least partly — by the words of an eleven-year-old girl named Grace Bedell, who, in the fall of 1860, wrote him a letter saying not only would his thin face be improved with a beard, but that “[a]ll the ladies like whiskers.” When he returned to Grace’s town in February of 1861, Lincoln bore his now-iconic beard.

Lincoln With Beard_crop
John Chester Buttre (American, 1821–1893). Abraham Lincoln. Third State. 1860–1861. Engraving. Gift of Herbert L. Pratt, Jr., AC 1945.490

Written by Rosemary Frehe, Class of 2017, and Fawzi Itani, Class of 2018