Elizabeth Catlett's Studies in Racism

Elizabeth Catlett's Studies in Racism

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Swann Auction Galleries.

First and foremost Elizabeth Catlett is a black woman and artist.  Her politically powerful artwork depicts the everyday life of working class people. 

We have to create an art for liberation and for life.
— Elizabeth Catlett

For inspiration she looked to her community.  Catlett was closely connected to it and her goal was to show the relationship between the black struggle and the struggle of oppressed people everywhere. 

A granddaughter of slaves, strong black women and mothers were a trademark of her work.  Catlett rose to fame in the 1960s as a political activist, painter, sculptor and printmaker.

“We have to create an art for liberation and for life,” she said.

Her work forced Americans to look racism in the face.  Her subjects spoke to a climate of violence in the world and a people’s will to survive out of pure grit.

Catlett attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., and studied art under James A. Porter, Lois Mailou Jones and James Wells.  From the beginning she focused on women and her work spanned more than 70 years. 

After graduating from Howard in 1937 she taught high school in Durham, N.C., and received her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940 from the Univ. of Iowa where she studied under Grant Wood.  She said Wood was always kind to her and called her Miss Catlett.  His idea was that artists should paint what they know best and so that’s what Catlett did.   She was the first student to receive a Master's degree in sculpture from the university.

She traveled to Mexico in 1946 and ultimately became a Mexican citizen settling in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico.  In Mexico she married artist Francisco Mora. 

Working class Mexican women like African-American women were another focal point for her.  

Printmaking was especially interesting to Catlett because it was an affordable medium for reaching lots of people.  In Mexico Catlett worked with the People's Graphic Arts Workshop.  They were a group of printmakers dedicated to using their artwork to promote social change.  

Because of her left wing political views she was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s and labeled an “undesirable” alien by the State Department.   

Catlett is especially known for her black Expressionistic sculptures and prints from the 1960s and 1970s.  Her works also focus on mothers and children and sculptures of famous African Americans.  Catlett taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City from 1958 until 1976.  

In 2003, she unveiled a sculpture honoring the late author Ralph Ellison.  He was the author of the 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.”  The sculpture was commissioned by the City of New York Parks & Recreation Department and is situated in Riverside Park in Harlem.

Catlett’s paintings and sculptures are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

On Feb 16, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, featured a selection of Catlett’s work in its African-American Fine Art auction.  

Elizabeth Catlett

Color Lithograph; Children with Flowers; signed, dated and numbered; 16/150; 1995; 25 ¼ inches by 18 ½ inches;  $1,440.

Color Photolithograph and Digital Print; Gossip; signed, titled, dated and numbered; 111/200; 2005; 15 ½ inches by 18 inches;  $2,160.

Linoleum Cut; Glory; printed in brown on black paper; artist’s proof; edition of 12; signed; titled; dated and inscribed; 1986; 14 ¼ inches by 9 inches;  $4,800.

Lithograph; Restaurant Patron (For Colored Only); signed; titled and dated; 1947; 9 ¼ inches by 6 inches;  $6,240.    

Color Linoleum Cut; Sharecropper; one of Catlett’s most iconic images; originally printed in 1952; signed; titled; dated; 24/60; 1970; 17 5/8 inches by 16 ½ inches;  $31,200.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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