Charles W. White Biography

Charles White was born in Chicago in 1918. The son of an African-American domestic worker and a railroad dining car waiter of Native American ancestry, White grew up in extreme poverty. He showed an early interest in art, using found materials and an oil paint set that his mother bought him for his seventh birthday. Art became a refuge from the poverty and violence in his neighborhood and from the unhappiness in his home after his father died and then when his mother married a belligerent and often drunk steel mill worker. White would often spend hours alone at the public library or the Art Institute of Chicago, while his mother was working, fueling his imagination and expanding his public school education.

When he was in the seventh grade, White won a scholarship to attend Saturday classes at the Art Institute, providing his first formal lessons in art. At age fourteen, he worked as a sign painter, creating signs for theaters and local shops. He also joined the Arts and Crafts Guild of black artists, receiving further instruction in art and providing an opportunity for him to exhibit his work. Through the Guild, he began to meet other black artists and intellectuals, including Katherine Dunham, Richard Wright, and Gwendolyn Brooks. These meetings, his frequent trips to see family in Mississippi, and his continued visits to the public library, where he discovered the works of black writers, laid a foundation for his commitment to African-American social causes.

In 1936, while in high school, White won a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. He began to address themes of the social injustices facing blacks and, in 1938, he began working on projects through the Works Progress Administration, including murals for auditoriums and exhibition halls. This led to the commission of his first mural: Five Great American Negroes.

White moved to New York in 1942, studying for a short period of time at the Art Students League, and forging numerous relationships with social activists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals. He continued to execute murals, studying and working for a time with David Alfaro Siqueiros and other Mexican muralists in Mexico City. He also continued his immersion in social causes, providing illustrations for several leftist publications. His travels through the south, where he personally experienced violence and racism, strengthened his resolve to battle social injustice through his art.

White contracted tuberculosis while serving in the Army in 1944, requiring extensive recuperation. Forced to limit his exposure to oil paints, he began to focus more on drawing, continuing to address universal subjects of social injustice, as well as depictions of specific incidents of African American history, such as The Trenton Six, a drawing based on the false arrest and imprisonment of six African American men. By the late 1940s, White had his first solo exhibition in New York, and soon was receiving substantial critical attention. In 1950, he married Frances Barrett, a social worker, and, to aid in his continued battle with tuberculosis, they moved to Los Angeles in 1956.

During the 1960s, White executed a series of massive drawings and continued to receive numerous solo exhibitions and honors, including an honorary doctor of arts degree from Columbia College in Chicago. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, he created a series of "wanted" posters based on Civil War posters advertising runaway slaves and slave auctions. In the 1970s, he resumed painting, and continued to receive numerous honors, including his inclusion in the first all-black exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, solo exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, and his appointment as Chair of the Drawing Department at Otis College of Art and Design. Continuing to suffer from the illness that he contracted while in the military, White died of congestive heart failure on October 3, 1979. His wife, Frances, died in 2000.

Besides being an artist of extraordinary ability, White was also a man of great integrity, honesty, and compassion. White's work and life were recently celebrated in a monograph written by Andrea Barnwell, Director of the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art. Writes Barnwell, "Charles White's art, easily identifiable by its bold figures, left an indelible imprint. This romantic revolutionary believed wholeheartedly in the art, mission, compassion, and dreams of all black people. Encapsulating the hopes and joys of humanity, his life and work encircle the globe."