charles white - oh, mary, don't you weep

WITH MASTERFUL STROKES, Charles White (1918-1979) captured the strength, character and complexity of African Americans in dramatic charcoal illustrations.

When his Social Realist images were published in a book for the first time in 1967, Negro Digest promoted it. In an un-bylined article, the magazine featured a portfolio of Charles White’s drawings from “Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White” (Ward Ritchie Press).
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The article published in the June 1967 edition (pages 40-48) includes eight illustrations and generously quotes Harry Belafonte, James A. Porter and Benjamin Horowitz. Belafonte, who has owned several original works by White, authored the book’s foreword. Porter, then-head of the department of fine arts and director of the art gallery at Howard University, offered an appreciation in the book and Horowitz, provided commentary. Horowitz, founder of Heritage Gallery in Los Angeles (he died in 2004), represented White and, according to the article, it was his idea to publish the book “Images of Dignity.”

The magazine cites the foreword in which Belafonte comments on White’s commitment to realism:

“In a period when many artists have deserted reality for the various schools of nonobjectivity and abstractionism, Mr. White has continued to work for broader horizons of human expression and to explore deeper dimensions of truth and reality.”
— Harry Belafonte, Negro Digest

The Negro Digest article begins with this statement: “Of the two best known Black artists in America—Charles White and Jacob Lawrence—Charles White is by far the most popular.” Resoundingly true at the time, it’s an ironic pronouncement.

Less than a year apart in age, White and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) are both incredibly accomplished and critically recognized with vastly different aesthetic approaches. While the work of each is sought by collectors and curators, over the past generation, the popularity and mass market appeal (posters, notecards and calendars) of the more prolific Lawrence have blossomed. At auction, lots by White and Lawrence have sold for six figures.

“Work,” arguably one of White’s most dignified images, is featured on the cover of Negro Digest. Executed in Wolff crayon and charcoal on illustration board, the 1953 work depicts a man of solid stature in a confident stance looking over his left shoulder while balancing a stack of two-by-fours on his right.

On Oct. 6, 2011, “Work” appeared in Swann Gallery’s African American fine art auction and sold for $306,000 (including the buyer’s premium; the hammer price was $255,000.)

The Swann catalog states that “Work” is the “first large scale drawing from White’s important 1950s period to come to auction” and describes White’s practice at the time he executed the 44 x 28-inch charcoal:

“Charles White created Work at the height of his New York career. This exceptional drawing is an excellent example of how, in the early 1950s, White gave a new beauty and dignity to his Social Realist subjects. Previously, White had used a more angular and stylized figuration that reflected his experience in the WPA and the influence of Mexican muralists. By the 1950s, White depicted working men and women on a grand scale, with an intensity of mark making and an attention to natural gestures that made his subjects into heroic figures.” — Swann Catalog

The “Images of Dignity” portfolio was published in the June 1967 issue of Negro Digest. A month later in July, Ebony, another Johnson Publishing Company magazine, reported on the new book in a more comprehensive journalistic feature by Louie Robinson titled “Charles White: Portrayer of Black Dignity.” CT

Negro Digest, June 1967, “The Drawings of Charles White: Images of Dignity,” pages 40-48.

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