National Museum of Women in the Arts
Elizabeth Catlett
April 15 1915 - present
Photograph of Elizabeth Catlett, 1998, by Charles Storer, courtesy of June Kelly Gallery, New York, NY, USA. (c) Charles Storer
Place of Birth:
American, Mexican
Phonetic Spelling:
ee-LIHZ-ah-behth KAT-leht
Minority status:
Work Type/Media:
Drawings and prints, Painting, Sculpture
Artistic Role(s):
Designer, Lithographer, Muralist, Printmaker, Sculptor
Social Realism
Artist's Biography:
For sixty years, Elizabeth Catlett has been producing politically powerful art in both the United States and her adopted country of Mexico. Catlett was raised in Washington, DC, the granddaughter of former slaves. Her father died before she was born and her mother held several jobs to raise three children. Refused admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology because of her race, Catlett enrolled at Howard University, where she studied painting and design, the latter with Lois Mailou Jones. She graduated with honors in 1935, never to forget that first college experience, which radicalized the young artist. She has spent a lifetime creating images that champion poor and working people of all colors.

Catlett was the first person to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa, in 1940. Her painting teacher, Grant Wood, encouraged students to make art about what they knew best and to experiment with different media. This inspired Catlett to create lithographs, linoleum cuts, and sculpture in wood, stone, clay, and bronze, all based on African-American and later Mexican life. She established her reputation when she won her first prize for sculpture at an important exhibition in 1941, but she also developed a career as an educator, teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans and at institutions in several other states.

In 1946, a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation enabled Catlett to move to Mexico City with her husband, the printmaker Charles White. There she joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular, an influential group of printmakers. At the Taller, Catlett met the Mexican artist Francisco Mora, whom she married after divorcing White, and with whom she had three sons. Catlett taught at the National School of Fine Arts in Mexico City from 1958 until her retirement in 1976. Meanwhile, she produced realistic and highly stylized figures in two and three dimensions. Her work ranges from tender maternal images to confrontational symbols of the Black Power movement, plus portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and the writer Phyllis Wheatley.

During the past forty years Catlett has had more than fifty solo shows of her sculptures and prints, including important retrospectives in 1993 and 1998. In her early nineties, Catlett continues to make art while dividing her time between New York and Cuernavaca.

Other Occupation(s):
Director (Administration), Educator, Instructor
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Where Trained/Schools:
The Art Students League of New York, New York, NY, USA (1941-1942) School of The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA (1941) University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA (1938-1940) Howard University, Washington, DC, USA (1931-1935)
Related Visual Artists:
wife of Charles White wife of Francisco Mora daughter of Mary Carson Catlett student of Grant Wood student of Lois Mailou Jones student of James Porter student of Ossip Zadkine student of Henry Stinson student of James Herring student of Francisco Zuniga student of José Elarese student of José Ruiz
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Candace Award for Art, National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, New York, NY, USA (1991) Artist of the Year, New York City Art Teacher's Association, New York, NY, USA (1991) James Van der Zee Award, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, USA (1983)
Earliest exhibition:
The Art of the American Negro 1851-1940, Tanner Art Galleries, Chicago, IL, USA (1940)
NMWA exhibition(s):
Women Artists of the New Deal Era: A Selection of Prints and Drawings
Preserving the Past, Securing the Future: Donations of Art, 1987-1997
Artist retrospective(s):
Elizabeth Catlett Sculpture, A 50 Year Retrospective, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY, USA (1998) Elizabeth Catlett: Works on Paper, 1944-1992, Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA, USA (1993) Elizabeth Catlett: Print Retrospective, Jamaica Arts Center, New York, NY, USA (1989)
A Second Generation
All the People
Singing Their Songs
To Marry
Two Generations
Walking Blindly