Elizabeth Catlett

American and Mexican artist

Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012) was an American and Mexican artist known for her sculptures and prints featuring African American women.

Elizabeth Catlett was born at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, DC. Both her maternal and paternal grandparents were born enslaved, a family legacy that influenced her art. Catlett knew from a young age that she wanted to be an artist. After Carnegie Mellon rescinded her acceptance due to her race, she attended Howard University, graduating in 1935 with a BS in Art. Following her graduation, she supervised elementary school art programs in Durham, North Carolina. In 1939, she began graduate studies in art at the University of Iowa, where she shifted her focus from painting to sculpture, and became the first woman to receive a MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa. Her master's thesis, a limestone sculpture entitled Negro Mother and Child (1940) won first place in sculpture at the 1940 Chicago American Negro Exposition. Her work often centered black women.

In 1940, Catlett met her first husband, fellow artist Charles White, in Chicago. The couple married in 1941 and moved to New Orleans, but later relocated to Harlem, New York. In New York, Catlett encountered some of the most famous and influential artists and writers of the time including Loïs Mailou Jones, Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas, Jacob Lawrence, and Langston Hughes. She began studying lithography and modernist sculpture and in 1945, she received a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation to produce a body of work focusing on black women. 

In 1946, Catlett and White moved to Mexico where Catlett was a guest artist at the printmaking collective, Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP, People's Graphic Arts Workshop). The artists of TGP used linoleum prints and woodcuts to create didactic sociopolitical art.

While in Mexico, Catlett and White divorced. She remarried Mexican artist Francisco Mora with whom she had three sons. In the 1950s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the U.S. embassy in Mexico investigated the TGP and Catlett specifically for her bold artwork, political activism, and communist affiliations. The United States government declared her an “undesirable alien,” which impaired her ability to return to the United States. In 1962, she became a Mexican citizen.

A terracotta sculpture depicts the head and neck of a young woman.

Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012)

Head of a Negro Woman, 1946

H x W x D: 12 × 7 × 9 in. (30.5 × 17.8 × 22.9 cm)

Terracotta

2015.2.4

Gift of Robert L. Johnson, © 2020 Catlett Mora Family Trust/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Inspired by the artistic activism within her circle of Mexican artists including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and David Siqueiros, Catlett continued creating images that showed the constant struggle and surprising strength of women, African Americans, those experiencing poverty, and disadvantaged social classes. Throughout her career, Catlett continued to carry these themes through in her bronze, wooden, and terracotta sculptures, prints, and paintings. Her U.S. citizenship was reinstated in 2002. Catlett lived and worked between Cuernavaca, Mexico, and New York City until her death in 2012. Her work has been featured around the world.

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