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Elizabeth Catlett

 (1915 - 2012)
Elizabeth Catlett was active/lived in District Of Columbia, New York / Mexico.  Elizabeth Catlett is known for abstract sculpture, mod figure and portrait painting, graphics.

Elizabeth Catlett

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Elizabeth Catlett
Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)

Known for abstract sculpture in bronze and marble as well as prints and paintings, particularly depicting the female figure, Elizabeth Catlett is unique for distilling African American, Native American, and Mexican art in her work.  She is "considered by many to be the greatest American black sculptor". . .(Rubinstein 320)

Catlett was born in Washington D.C. and later became a Mexican citizen, residing in Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico.  She spent the last 35 years of her life in Mexico. 

Her father, a math teacher at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, died before she was born, but the family, including her working mother, lived in the relatively commodious home of his family in DC.   Catlett received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University, where there was much discussion about whether or not black artists should depict their own heritage or embrace European modernism.

She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940 from the University of Iowa, where she had gone to study with Grant Wood, Regionalist* painter.  His teaching dictum was "paint what you know best," and this advice set her on the path of dealing with her own background.   She credits Wood with excellent teaching and deep concern for his students, but she had a problem during that time of taking classes from him because black students were not allowed housing in the University's dormitories.

Following graduation in 1940, she became Chair of the Art Department at Dillard University in New Orleans.  There she successfully lobbied for life classes with nude models, and gained museum admission to black students at a local museum that to that point, had banned their entrance.  That same year, her painting Mother and Child, depicting African-American figures won her much recognition. 

From 1944 to 1946, she taught at the George Washington Carver School, an alternative community school in Harlem that provided instruction for working men and women of the city.  From her experiences with these people, she did a series of paintings, prints, and sculptures with the theme "I Am a Negro Woman."

In 1946, she received a Rosenwald Fellowship*, and she and her artist husband, Charles White, traveled to Mexico where she became interested in the Mexican working classes.  In 1947, she settled permanently in Mexico where she, divorced from White, married artist Francisco Mora.  The couple had three children.  From 1958 to 1973, she became the first woman professor of sculpture and later Chair of the department of sculpture at the National School of Fine Arts, Mexico. 

There she also did much printmaking, which she found an affordable medium for reaching the masses of people and produced images of African-American and Mexican working class women.

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists

Added note: Elizabeth Catlett died at the age of  96 on April 2, 2012 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. (Obituary. Chicago Tribune April 4, 2012)

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from
Elizabeth Catlett was born April 15, 1919 in Washington DC to John and Mary Carson Catlett, both of whom had taught school.  Catlett combines the basic elements of African traditions with those of west Mexico and U.S. African American.  Catlett decided to become an artist while attending Dunbar High School, and won a competitive examination for a scholarship to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, but was rejected because of her race.

Catlett went on to study at Howard University with such luminaries as Dr. Alain Leroy Locke, Professor James A. Porter, James Lesense Wells, and Lois Mailou Jones.  With the passing of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and the oppressive McCarthy hearings, the loyalty oath and other such irritants drove artists into seclusion by the hundreds.  By 1947, Catlett decided to retreat to Mexico where she had previously spent time while working on a Rosenfeld Fellowship.

Her artistic talent has won Catlett significant recognition as an artist in two very different cultures.  Catlett's prints have been exhibited all over the world.  She has received grants and fellowships, which have allowed her to study in England, east Germany, China, and the Soviet Union. 

The work of Elizabeth Catlett is in many museums, including the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. Catlett continues to reside in Mexico with her husband, artist Victor Mora, and their sons.

Elizabeth Catlett has made sculpture in wood, mostly of the female nude, since the mid-1950s.   In Mexico, Catlett studied sculpture at the University of Iowa and then in New York with the Modernist Ossip Zadkine.  According to Melanie Herzog, when Catlett returned to sculpture after 8 years of motherhood, she began working in wood for the first time, studying with Jose L. Ruiz at the Esmeralda school; from 1955-1959. Catlett describes her work as representations of women, black women and herself - " I am a black woman. I use my body in working. When I am bathing or dresing, I see and feeel how my body looks and moves. I never do sculpture from a nude model... Mostly I watch women."


1955 - Studied wood carving with Jose L. Ruiz

1947 - Sculpture with Francisco Zuniga, Escuela de Pintura y Escultura, Esmeralda, Mexico

1943 - Studied with Sculptor Ossip Zadkine, NY

1942 - Studied lithography at Art Students League, NY

1941 - Studied ceramics, Art Institute of Chicago, IL

1940 - MFA, University of Iowa

1935 - BS, Cum Laude, Howard University School of Art, Washington, DC

Biography from Tobey C. Moss Gallery
ELIZABETH CATLETT is first and foremost a sculptor in stone, wood and bronze. But, printmaking has been an equally important facet of her artistic expression since she was introduced to lithography in 1942 at the Art Students League in New York.

From there, it was a natural transition to the wood and linoleum block with tools that were familiar from her sculptural work. Catlett chose printmaking as the best path for reaching the masses of people (especially women) in the United States and Mexico who were also African-American and Mexican natives.

From early experiences, Catlett faced racial challenges which she met squarely. She fought for equality in the classrooms, in the public theaters, in the museums. In her work is the proof.

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About  Elizabeth Catlett

Born:  1915 - Washington, District of Columbia
Died:   2012 - Cuernavaca, Mexico
Known for:  abstract sculpture, mod figure and portrait painting, graphics

Essays referring to
Elizabeth Catlett

Black American Artists