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 Charles Henry Alston  (1907 - 1977)

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Lived/Active: New York/North Carolina      Known for: abstract expressionist painting, portraits, lithography, murals

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Charles Henry Alston
from Auction House Records.
Untitled (Abstract Cityscape)
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles Alston was a long-time instructor at the Art Students League of New York and was known for his grasp of abstract design and his ability to express in his artwork the social forces that where shaping America at that time. His mediums were painting, sculpture, and murals, and his mural titled Man on the Threshold of Space, is at the Harriet Tubman School and another, Emerging Man, is at the Harlem Hospital, both in New York.

Charles Alston earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Columbia, University, and in 1930, received the Arthur Wesley Dow Fellowship.  From 1950, he began several decades of teaching at the Art Students League and was also a member of the National Society of Mural Painters.  In 1958, he was a U.S. representative to the Brussels Worlds Fair and in 1967 was appointed to the Advisory Board of the National Council of the Arts.

He exhibited at the John Heller Gallery in New York and in 1969 had a large retrospective exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York.  However, he declined an invitation to participate in a 1971 exhibition of Black Artists at the Whitney Museum of Art writing to the Curator: "The idea of separating artists on the basis of color is a repulsive affirmation of the racism and bigotry which permeate American society . . . I would hate to think that I was in an exhibition because I's Black, rather than because I am a good painter." (Herskovic 26)

Sources:
American Art Review
ARTnews

Marika Herskovic, Editor, American Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, An Illustrated Survey

Biography from Tobin Reese Fine Art:
Charles Alston (1907-1977) was a prominent African-American artist. Prolific during the Harlem Renaissance, Alston displayed a wide variety of artistic talent, producing paintings, illustrations, sculptures, and many famous murals. He was a founding member of the Harlem Artists' Guild.

Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. At a young age, Alston began to learn art from his older brother, Wendell. After moving to New York in 1915, his artistic talent was recognized at Public School 179 where he drew all of the school's posters. His artistic recognition continued at DeWitt Clinton High School where he was the art editor of The Magpie, the school's magazine. Accepted into the National Honor Society for his excellence in school, he nevertheless found time to study drawing and anatomy at the National Academy of Art on the weekend; it was here that Alston first began to work with oils. He gained acceptance to Columbia University, studying fine arts there, and was the recipient of a fellowship to study at Columbia's Teachers College upon completing his undergraduate degree; he graduated with a Master's Degree in 1931. During this period, he began his teaching career, teaching at the Harlem Arts Workshop close to where he lived. He also fostered a career as an illustrator for many prominent magazines such as The New Yorker and Fortune.

In 1938, Alston received a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund; he used this money to travel to the south, his first time back since his family relocated over two decades earlier. There, he photographed portraits of the lives of various African-Americans, later turning these photographs into a series of portraits. Pleased with his work, the Rosenwald Fund awarded Alston an additional grant in 1940 in order for him to return to the south again and continue his work from 1938.

After serving in Arizona during World War II, Alston returned to New York. In 1950, the Metropolitan Museum of Art displayed Painting, later purchasing it. His first solo exhibition followed in 1953 at the John Heller Gallery. In 1956, he took a job as the first African-American teacher at the Museum of Modern Art. This job led to his ascension as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958. A decade later, he was made a member of the National Council of Culture and Arts by President Lyndon Johnson. He attained the rank of professor at the City College of New York in 1973, a position he would hold for the rest of his life.

During his career, Alston experimented with many different mediums in a variety of different styles, leading to a vast output which shows periods of fame in specific art forms. He explored the subjects of race, religion, the civil rights movement, and everyday life in the south. His styles cross vast ranges from realistic depictions of working people to abstract modernism, heavily influenced by repeated studies of African art. His murals gained him particular fame, leading him to find mural projects in which he could depict African-Americans in places frequented by African-Americans. As such, Alston was an individualist, never feeling the need to conform to artistic standards and trends of the day, instead painting what he experienced around him. He was a lifelong student as well as a teacher, constantly expanding his artistic vocabulary through exploration of new art forms and styles.

Alston died in 1977 from cancer. To honor his academic legacy, the Art Student's League created the Charles Alston Merit Scholarship the same year. In 1990, Alston's bust of Martin Luther King Jr. became the first art piece depicting an African-American displayed in the White House.

Source: Ian Martyn For Tobin Reese Fine Art

Biography from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery:
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Charles “Spinky” Alston moved to New York City with his family in 1915, but continued to spend summers in North Carolina until he was fifteen years old. A talented student, Charles Alston took classes at the National Academy of Art and went on to receive his B.A. with a concentration in fine arts from Columbia University (1925-1929).

While completing his M.F.A at Columbia University Teachers College, Alston was introduced to African art and aesthetics and was deeply influenced by modern art. After receiving his Master’s Degree (1931), Alston worked at the Harlem Arts Workshop run by Augusta Savage at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The workshop was partially funded by the Carnegie Foundation and later came under the jurisdiction of the WPA Federal Arts Project. When the school needed more space, Alston found additional room for the school at 306 West 141 Street. Known as “306,” the school became a center for Harlem’s creative community. When funding for the school disappeared, Alston, along with Augusta Savage and Arthur Schomburg, became a founding members of the Harlem Artists Guild.

In 1935, Alston became the first black supervisor within the Federal Arts Project when he was assigned to direct the WPA’s Harlem Hospital murals project. Alston’s work was influenced by the social realist art of the 1930s, the politically charged work of the Mexican Muralists, and by jazz and nightclub culture.

An accomplished sculptor, painter, illustrator, and printmaker, Alston was also an influential teacher at both the Art Students League (where he became the first black instructor in 1950) and the City University of New York.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. Throughout his distinguished career as both artist and educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity with its complicated and, at times, troubling implications. Inspired by the modern idiom of Modigliani and Picasso as well as African art, Alston’s work addresses both the personal and communal aspects of the black experience.

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston’s parents were educated leaders in that city’s African American community. Although he moved with his family to Harlem at the age of seven, Alston continued to spend summers with his Southern grandmother through his teenage years. It was during these visits that Alston, who had displayed an aptitude for art since early childhood, became fascinated with North Carolina red clay and began dabbling in sculpture. There were few opportunities for an aspiring African American artist to see fine art or receive formal training in Charlotte at the time. This was not the case in Harlem, however, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Though Harlem offered a wider array of cultural offerings, Alston nonetheless continued to confront obstacles imposed by segregation practices in New York.

Drawing political cartoons about race relations—first for his high school magazine and, later, as an undergraduate at Columbia University—provided an outlet for Alston’s artistic and personal expression. Alston, who had enrolled at Columbia in 1925, was not permitted to take life drawing classes because of his race. His talent, however, did not go unnoticed; he was later awarded the Arthur Wesley Dow Fellowship which funded graduate work at Columbia’s Teachers College. It was during his tenure there that he designed the cover for one of Duke Ellington’s jazz albums, as well as book jackets for Langston Hughes and Eudora Welty. Alston enjoyed a successful career as an illustrator for popular magazines during the 1930s and 1940s.

Alston first developed an appreciation for the significance of the African aesthetic to the art world when, during a visit to the Schomberg Collection, he met philosopher Alain Locke. Alston’s involvement in Locke’s New Negro Movement and his engagement with other established Harlem Renaissance artists changed the cultural atmosphere of that community. While still a graduate student at Columbia, he established the Harlem Art Workshop for aspiring artists, as well as an art program for Harlem youth called Utopia House. His studio, located at 306 West 141st Street, became a gathering space for intellectual and creative exchange for African American artists—including Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Bob Blackburn, and Alston’s cousin Romare Bearden.

In recognition of his efforts, Alston was appointed the first African American supervisor within the Federal Arts Project in 1935. Alston capitalized on his new position to form the Harlem Artists Guild, an attempt on his part to pressure the Works Progress Administration to fund more black artists. Eager to explore political and aesthetic topics in black art, Alston also co-founded the art collective known as the Spiral Group with Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and others in 1963. Other significant milestones in Alston’s career include serving as the first African American instructor at the Art Students League (1950-1971) and at the Museum of Modern Art.

Alston’s own creative endeavors likewise benefited from his relationships with fellow Harlem artists, including Augusta Savage and James Lesesne Wells, both of whom he met through the Harlem Art Workshop. A self-described “figure painter,” Alston embraced abstraction, but never completely abandoned the figural. As a painter, sculptor, illustrator, and WPA muralist, Alston was inevitably interested in creating visually accessible art that explored human connections. His commitment to promoting African American art and culture never wavered, and he continued to create art and to mentor aspiring artists until his death in 1977. Charles Alston’s work is represented in the collections of the Butler Institute of Art, National Portrait Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Whitney Museum of Art.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


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Charles Alston is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Abstract Expressionism
Black American Artists



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