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Charles Wilbert White Documented the African American Experience with Precision and Dignity

graphite portrait of two black women looking off to the side
Charles Wilbert White, Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep, 1956, graphite and pen and ink on board, 39 1/4 × 41 1/2 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2015.22.
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“You look at Charlie White and you look at the faces of Black people, there’s a serenity. There’s a hope. There’s always a strength in his characters. If you look at the paintings that he does, the limbs of the Black subject is always powerfully displayed. Strong arms. A lot of other art saw us as meager, as starving somehow. A Charlie White, you look at that and that was a place to be celebrated.” –Harry Belafonte

 

 

photograph of artist charles wilbert white
Charles Wilbert White

Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979) inspired and taught a generation of Black American artists while also being a well-known and acclaimed artist and painter himself. Born in 1918 in Chicago, just one year ahead of the 1919 race riots, White’s life and career were punctuated by turbulent moments; nevertheless, he persisted in his effort to document the African American experience through painting. He showed tremendous artistic talent even at a young age, but was repeatedly denied opportunities and scholarships due to his race.

 

As a teenager, White worked for the Chicago-based National Negro Congress, an organization which fought for Black liberation, as a staff artist. Later, he moved to New York City and created art for the Works Progress Administration where his work was inspired in part by the frescoes of Diego Rivera. One of his most well-known works, The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America, on view at Hampton University in Virginia, speaks to this inspiration.

Between Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, White continued to work on his art and made friends in various circles, counting among his friends the likes of Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier. White also became an influential teacher whose students included Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons. He worked and taught amid the civil rights movement and was a vocal advocate for workers rights throughout his life.

 

graphite portrait of two black women looking off to the side
Charles Wilbert White, Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep, 1956, graphite and pen and ink on board, 39 1/4 × 41 1/2 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2015.22.

His 1956 work Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep can be found in the Crystal Bridges collection. White’s ability to capture the human psyche through simple mark-making allows an otherwise sparse scene to brim with emotion. The two women in the drawing are rendered with powerful strength and dignity. The incredible detail throughout the work–in their clothing, faces, and background–is composed of carefully managed graphite line work, which registers when the viewer is close to the work and then resolves into a complete image at a distance.

 

The title points to an African American spiritual of the same name, which refers to the miracle of Lazarus, described in the book of John in the New Testament of the Bible. In this account, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life after he was entombed for four days, his sisters, Mary and Martha, both confer with Jesus about Lazarus. Several major artists have depicted this dramatic event, including Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and van Gogh, but White’s depiction differs by focusing solely on the female figures, supposedly Mary and Martha–the ones who were left behind–grieving their brother’s death. White foregrounds the humanity of his figures in all their complexity with strength, even in loss.