A FEW HOURS after Aretha Franklin died yesterday morning, Kadir Nelson delivered an illustration of the Queen of Soul that will grace the cover of The New Yorker magazine’s Aug. 27 issue.

The emotional illustration depicts Franklin in profile. Wearing a choir robe, her head is thrown back as she belts out a song. The image is not immediately recognizable as the work of of Nelson who has illustrated nearly a dozen covers for The New Yorker. Rather, it evokes the work of another artist, Charles White (1918-1979), who is known for his realist images depicting black people with strength and dignity. Nelson’s cover is inspired by a particular work by White, his 1957 ink drawing “Folksinger.”

“I wanted to draw her in a choir,” Nelson said in The New Yorker’s write up about the forthcoming cover. “She was a preacher’s daughter, and so much of what she gave us came from the church, even after she moved beyond gospel.”

“I wanted to draw her in a choir. She was a preacher’s daughter, and so much of what she gave us came from the church, even after she moved beyond gospel.” Cover Illustrator Kadir Nelson

The Washington Post wrote about the quick turnaround. The New Yorker was planning a “seasonally themed” cover. When David Remnick, the magazine’s editor learned Franklin had died, he wanted to respond given her stature as “a pillar of postwar American music.” He asked Françoise Mouly, the magazine’s art editor, if there was time to make a change. She turned to Nelson who made it happen.

“Although Franklin and White practiced different disciplines, I felt it was appropriate to bring them together here,” Nelson told the Post, “as they were contemporaries, and both of their bodies of work are very soulful.” (They were actually born a generation apart—Franklin in 1942 and White in 1918.)

A major exhibition of White’s paintings, drawings, and prints is currently touring the nation. “Charles White: A Retrospective” is on view at the Art Institute in Chicago through Sept. 3. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth and is the most comprehensive presentation of his work since the early 1980s. The show is traveling to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this fall (Oct. 7, 2018-Jan. 13, 2019) and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next spring.

According to the checklist published in the exhibition catalog, “Folksinger (Voice of Jericho: Portrait
of Harry Belafonte)” (1957) is featured in the retrospective. The work is on loan from the collection of Pamela and Harry Belafonte. MoMA is the only venue where “Folksinger” will be displayed.

Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s striking cover paying tribute to Franklin hits newsstands next week. “Nelson rose to the challenge and started sketching,” Mouly told the Post. “The simplicity of Nelson’s expressive pencil lines perfectly captures the magic of this great American icon.” CT


The Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago co-published a fully illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany the Charles White retrospective. The publication features contributions by Kerry James Marshall, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. Also check out an early volume “Images of Dignity: The Drawings of Charles White.” Part of the David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, “Charles White” documents the artist’s practice.


CHARLES WHITE, “Folksinger,” 1957 (ink on board, 52 × 34 inches). | Collection Pamela and Harry Belafonte © 1957 The Charles White Archives. Photo by Christopher Burke Studios


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