Elizabeth Catlett

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Elizabeth Catlett, born in 1919, American sculptor and printmaker, whose figures of African Americans in wood, marble, and bronze convey dignity and pride. Throughout her career, Catlett has focused on themes relating to the black woman’s experience, and mother and child form the subject of many of her works. Her lithographs and other prints also celebrate the contributions of black women, such as Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman, to African American history. Catlett’s style has remained consistent since the 1940s. The smooth, curving forms of her figurative sculptures remind many viewers of the works of British sculptor Henry Moore or Romanian-born French sculptor Constantin Brancusi. In the black marble sculpture Maternity (1980, private collection), a child sits in the center of a curved form that has a woman’s head and breasts, suggesting the mother’s embrace. Catlett's work also shows the influence of African sculpture and of the 1930s muralist movement in Mexico.

Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a B.S. degree from Howard University in 1937, and received a master of fine arts (M.F.A.) degree in sculpture from the University of Iowa in 1940. At Howard University she became acquainted with African art and the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera. She studied with regionalist painter Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. Wood, who painted Midwestern scenes, told Catlett to paint what she knew best. For Catlett, this meant African Americans. After receiving her degree, Catlett taught at various high schools and colleges, serving for a time as head of the art department at Dillard University in New Orleans.

In the mid-1940s Catlett was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Foundation fellowship and used part of it to go to Mexico. In Mexico Catlett became involved with a printmaking workshop, Taller de Grafica Popular, which through its posters and illustrated books promoted literacy and other efforts to improve people’s...
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