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Portrait of a Woman

A work made of charcoal, with smudging, erasing and scratching, on tan wove paper, laid down.
© The Charles White Archives Inc.

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  • A work made of charcoal, with smudging, erasing and scratching, on tan wove paper, laid down.




Charles White
American, 1918-1979

About this artwork

Charles White dedicated himself to portraying the African American community with dignity. Contrary to stereotypical representations of African Americans common during the postwar era, White consistently depicted his subjects as strong and proud. An immensely talented draftsman, White wanted others to be conscious of the pride he had in his people, and he believed that art was the most appropriate tool for relaying this message to the public. White focused on African American women during the 1950s and throughout his career, even devoting a solo exhibition in New York to the subject. For this show White created pieces that honored the strength of black women including works such as Harriet Tubman (1949; private collection) and Mother (1945; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). When asked about the exhibition, White explained the the African American woman deserves “a great deal more recognition for the never-ending sacrifices she has made and the continuing leadership she has given in the struggles of the Negro people for full equality.”

During this time, White created Portrait of a Woman, 1950, which shows a contemporary working-class African American woman. The subject’s large eyes are inviting and warm, but the noticeable bags, along with her wrinkled face, imply that her life has been hard. Plainly clothed with simply styled hair and no jewelry, she is obviously a commoner, but White’s depiction suggests that although she may not be conventionally beautiful or important, she still has her dignity. Furthermore, her striking doleful eyes address the viewer directly in a tender gaze.
Increasingly leftist in his political views, White’s admiration for the working classes is visible in his murals, his paintings, and his works on paper. White chose to focus not only on inequalities and degradation experienced by African Americans, but also the humanity and beauty he saw in them. White’s Portrait of a Woman celebrates his subject by portraying her as valuable and worthy of not only his artistic representation, but also of our respect. Through masterful renditions such as Portrait of a Woman, White offered an alternative, uplifting narrative of the African American experience.


Currently Off View


Prints and Drawings


Charles White


Portrait of a Woman


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Made 1950


Charcoal, with smudging, erasing and scratching, on tan wove paper, laid down


61 × 45.3 cm (24 1/16 × 17 7/8 in.)

Credit Line

Joyce Turner Hilkevitch Collection in memory of Jonathan Turner

Reference Number



© The Charles White Archives Inc.

Extended information about this artwork

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