Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), a granddaughter of former enslaved people, was raised in Washington, D.C., by her widowed mother. Catlett’s family history impressed upon her at an early age the struggle and exploitation that made up the African American experience, which also became her reality. Denied entry to her college of choice because of her race, Catlett enrolled at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., graduating with honors in 1937. She continued her education at Iowa State University, earning her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940. There, she was mentored by famed American artist Grant Wood, who advised his students to choose what they knew the most about to be their subjects. Drawing upon her personal experiences, Catlett found her subjects: women, African Americans, and the minority working class.
Following her graduation, Catlett accepted a position teaching at Dillard University in New Orleans. Though she only remained in the city for two years, her impact was transformative. Most notably, she arranged for her students to visit the Delgado Museum, now the New Orleans Museum of Art, to view a touring retrospective on Pablo Picasso. The students visited on a day when the museum was closed to the (white-only) public, marking the first time that many of her students had ever visited an art museum.
Catlett strove to have that same impact for the rest of her life. Whether in the United States or in Mexico, where she lived for sixty years, through her art or her political activism, she sought to highlight the histories, struggles, and experiences of people of color and minorities. Her African American subjects expressed a humanism that had often been excluded in artistic depictions. Of her subjects, she said, “I reflect the body and facial forms of African American people because I want to show the physical forms. I would say at the same time they are expressing such qualities as dignity, strength, tenderness, love…”
Elizabeth Catlett, Walking Woman, 1987. Bronze, 31 3/4 x 8 x 7 inches. Purchased by the Louisiana Art & Science Museum. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 1996.001.001
Catlett studied for a short time with Grant Wood, who is most famous for painting the Modernist work American Gothic. The two people displayed in the scene are not a husband and wife, as often thought, but Wood’s sister and dentist. Their figures have been elongated to match the “Carpenter Gothic” style of the house.