Elizabeth Catlett Biography

Elizabeth Catlett




Biography partially sourced from the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Wikipedia:

Elizabeth Catlett, printmaker, sculptor, and painter, was born in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1915. The granddaughter of former slaves, Catlett was raised in Washington, D.C. and was partially raised by her grandmother, who told her grandchildren of her experience being captured and enslaved by U.S. plantation owners. Catlett's father died before she was born and her mother held several jobs to raise their three children. Though initially accepted to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, she was refused admission when they discovered she was Black. Thus, Catlett enrolled at Howard University, where her teachers included artist Loïs Mailou Jones and philosopher Alain Locke. She graduated with honors in 1935 and went on to earn one of the first MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa five years later; her achievement also marked the first Black woman to receive the degree in the United States.

Grant Wood, her painting teacher at Iowa, encouraged students to make art about what they knew best and to experiment with different mediums, inspiring Catlett to create lithographs, linoleum cuts, and sculpture in wood, stone, clay, and bronze. She drew subjects from African American and later Mexican life. After graduation she continued her studies at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and spent her summers taking courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. There she met her first husband, artist Charles White, and together they moved to New York, where Catlett taught at the Art Students League and the Gerorge Washington Carver School in Harlem.

In 1946, a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation enabled Catlett to move to Mexico City with White. This would prove to be a pivotal time in Catlett's art career as there were fewer restricitions on her studies and work based on her race; as well, she was exposed to the sociopolitical work of Mexican muralists and printmakers such as Diego Rivera, Frieda Kahlo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. After a year, she and Charles White divorced, and she joined the Taller de Gráfica Popular, an influential and political group of printmakers. In 1948 she enrolled at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura, Escultura y Grabado to study ceramics and sculpture. At the Taller, Catlett met the Mexican artist Francisco Mora, whom she later married 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, producing realistic and highly stylized two- and three-dimensional figures. Her subjects ranged from tender maternal images to confrontational symbols of the Black Power movement, to portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and the writer Phyllis Wheatley. Her work came under scrutiny during the McCarthy “Red Scare” era and she declared an "undesireable alien" and barred from entering the U.S., not long before her mother became ill and subsequently died. Catlett renounced her American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen in 1962 in protest. After a friends and colleagues launched a campaign in the late 1960s, she was granted a special permit to enter the U.S. for a an exhibition of her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1972.

Catlett continued to work and teach in Maexico, retiring in 1975. She and Mora divided their time between Cuernavaca and New York City, beginning in the early 1980s. After Mora's death in 2002, Catlett applied for and was granted her American citizenship once again. She continued to work until her death on April 2, 2012. 

During the past 40 years, museums and galleries have held more than 50 solo exhibitions of Catlett’s sculptures and prints, including important retrospectives in 1993 and 1998. Catlett continued to make art through her mid-90s, while dividing her time between New York and Cuernavaca.