Now on View: Recently Acquired Early Work by Elizabeth Catlett

Powerful double portrait joins Museum’s growing collection of African American art

The Princeton University Art Museum has acquired an important early work by the renowned African American artist Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), the fruit of a collaboration with Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology that continues to strengthen Princeton’s art collections.

Painted and drawn in egg tempera and colored pencil, Friends (1944) represents two closely cropped, overlapping figures, one male and one female, in a strikingly modernist style that underscores the figures’ emotional intimacy. This bold graphic image was created during Catlett’s time in New York, when she lived in Harlem with her husband, the artist Charles White, studied lithography and sculpture, and worked as a teacher at the progressive George Washington Carver Community School. The 1940s were a critical turning point in Catlett’s career, when her teaching in particular led her to commit to producing work that would be about and for working-class African Americans.

“Elizabeth Catlett’s commanding and compelling creative vision, melding her abiding concerns for civil and human rights with technical and compositional mastery, is beautifully embodied in this quietly intense work,” said James Steward, the Museum’s Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Director. “We are thrilled to have joined with our colleagues in the Department of Art and Archaeology to acquire this work by a still under-recognized American master.

“The Department of Art and Archaeology is always extremely pleased when recommendations for Museum acquisitions, which are made possible by our Hall Fund, can contribute in a dynamic fashion to both the University’s teaching programs and the Princeton University Art Museum’s broader public mission,” said Michael Koortbojian, M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Art and Archaeology. “The addition of Catlett’s drawing to the Museum’s collection exemplifies our collaboration at its best.”

“Never before published, Catlett’s Friends is an important addition to the Art Museum’s rapidly growing holdings of works by African American artists,” said Laura M. Giles, Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, Curator of Prints and Drawings. “Including works by such influential artists as Romare Bearden, Ellen Gallagher, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Charles White, John Wilson and Hale Woodruff, the African American collection has been a major focus for us in the past fifteen years.”

The granddaughter of freed slaves, Catlett was born into a middle-class family in Washington, DC. She studied painting at Howard University and earned her MFA in sculpture at the University of Iowa. Catlett lived and worked in New Orleans, Chicago and New York before settling in Mexico in the late 1940s, with her second husband, the artist Francisco Mora. She became a Mexican citizen in 1962. Best known for her sculpture and prints, Catlett had a lifelong interest in issues surrounding race, class and justice, particularly progressive causes for women of color, which is reflected throughout her career. Her forceful figurative style incorporates modernist geometries, African and Mesoamerican traditions and deeply held commitment to social realism.

Friends joins a linocut of 1946 by the artist in the Museum’s collections titled, In Harriet Tubman I Helped Hundreds to Freedom, as well as two prints by Catlett acquired by the Museum for the University’s Department of African and African American Studies.

This major acquisition was made possible through the Laura P. Hall Memorial Fund, an endowment established in honor of his mother by Princeton professor of American history Clifton R. Hall, who also bequeathed his collection of over 100 prints and drawings—including prints by Goya and watercolors by Edward Hopper—to the Art Museum. Intended for the “promotion and enjoyment of the graphic arts at Princeton,” this significant endowment, which is administered by the Department of Art and Archaeology, has significantly enriched the Art Museum’s prints and drawings holdings, as well as the graphic arts collections of Princeton University Libraries. With no stipulations as to nationality, culture or period, the Hall Fund has, since the late 1940s, supported almost 600 acquisitions, ranging from European old master drawings and prints to nineteenth-century Japanese woodcuts, as well as important modern and contemporary works on paper by such artists as Howardena Pindell, Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters.