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

Robert S. Duncanson: Nineteenth-Century African American Landscape Painter

Robert Scott Duncanson (American 1821-1872), Maiden's Rock, Lake Pepin, 1862. Oil on canvas. Gift of William MacBeth, Inc, AC 1950.8

Robert S. Duncanson (American, 1821–1872), Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin, 1862. Oil on canvas. Gift of William MacBeth, Inc, AC 1950.8

In Robert Duncanson’s painting Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin, a sailboat glides over white-capped waves, between towering rock formations and under a sky tinged with pink and filled with white clouds. The serenity of this scene derives from Duncanson’s use of muted colors and his soft, visible brushstrokes. The sense of calm and focus on natural beauty are features of almost all of Duncanson’s work. In 1862, the Cincinnati Gazette called Duncanson the “best landscape painter in the West” (Oxford Art Online). Duncanson was a rarity in the nineteenth century as a successful African American painter who achieved international recognition.

Robert Duncanson (1821-1872), Wikimedia Commons

Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872). Wikimedia Commons

A descendant of freed slaves from Virginia, Duncanson grew up in Michigan and was trained in house painting and carpentry, both family trades. While some sources claimed he was of Scottish descent, recent scholarship has determined that he had a multiracial background, and that his great-grandfather was likely a plantation owner. In 1841 Duncanson moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, considered the “Athens of the West,” to pursue art as a career. He taught himself to paint and began working with Hudson River School artists such as William Sonntag. Soon, Duncanson’s patrons included white abolitionists and prominent citizens who supported African American artists. One such patron, the wealthy horticulturalist Nicholas Longworth, hired Duncanson to paint eight landscape murals in his Cincinnati mansion. Joseph D. Ketner, author of a book about Duncanson called The Emergence of the African-American Artist (1994), called the murals “the most ambitious and accomplished domestic mural paintings in antebellum America.” With his success, Duncanson was able to travel to Europe in 1853 to study the great masters.

Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm, Wikimedia Commons

Robert Duncanson, The Land of the Lotus Eaters, 1861. Swedish Royal Collection, Stockholm. Wikimedia Commons

Although most of Duncanson’s paintings show no signs of racial tension or antislavery views, the artist was involved in the abolitionist movement in Cincinnati and produced paintings for the antislavery presentation Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States. His most acclaimed work, The Land of the Lotus Eaters (1861), shows European influence in both subject and style, but there are also subtle references to slavery in the United States in the depiction of white soldiers being served by men with darker skin. Around 1863, while the Civil War was being fought at home, Duncanson traveled to Canada and then Europe. In Canada he helped develop and influence a community of artists, before leaving for Europe in 1865 to exhibit The Land of the Lotus Eaters. In Great Britain and other countries aristocrats and royals alike received the work with great praise, including the king of Sweden. The painting is now part of the Swedish Royal Collection in Stockholm.

The Mead acquired Duncanson’s 1862 work Maiden’s Rock, Lake Pepin in 1950 through the art historian and dealer Robert McIntyre, who was president and director of the Macbeth Gallery, owned by his uncle William Macbeth, in New York. The work is a skillful and expressive representation of the beauty of the natural world. Lake Pepin is a widening of the Mississippi River located about sixty miles south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a glimpse of the river can be seen stretching beyond the cliff on the left. Duncanson’s painting is part of the Mead’s well-established collection of nineteenth-century American landscape paintings, which includes works by Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Asher Brown Durand. Recognition of Duncanson as part of this significant group of American artists has grown in recent years, and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston have Duncanson landscapes currently on view. (Click here to see the Metropolitan’s Duncanson, and here to see the MFA’s.)

Duncanson’s career is not easily categorized – he is both an important American landscape painter and a rare example of an African American artist who succeeded as a painter at a time when the profession was dominated by white men. The MFA Boston identifies Duncanson along with Grafton Tyler Brown (1841–1918) and Edward Mitchell Bannister (1833–1901) as the three African American painters who “achieve[d] . . . popular success in the nineteenth century” (Boston MFA).

Written by Catherine Rose O’Brien, Class of 2017