Charles White - 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips

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  • In Short

    “Art must be an integral part of the struggle. It can’t simply mirror what’s taking place…It must ally itself with the forces of liberation”
    – Charles White

  • The Founding Father of Post-War Figuration

    A manifestation of Charles White’s lifelong commitment to visual representation of black history and life, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, 1958 is a poignant meditation on the experience of African American youth and represents the same core principles that underscored White’s public art projects. Indelibly influenced by the work of the Mexican muralists—both formally and in their exploitation of art’s capability to communicate political injustices—the artist famously painted several Works Progress Administration (WPA)-sponsored murals across the nation portraying both the inhumane struggles and invaluable societal contributions of African Americans. While aspects of his visual language evolved over his lifetime, his career-long commitment to figurative renderings of black existence was celebrated in a major travelling retrospective last year at the Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

    Charles White working on the left panel of Struggle for Liberation, 1940-1941. Artwork © The Charles White Archives

    In Dialogue with Art History 
    White’s deep art historical knowledge is exposed in Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child through his use of a Roman pictorial motif later appropriated by Renaissance painters, velificatio, in which billowing drapery denotes a figure’s divine status. His reinvention of the tropes of the European canon is also emphasized in the juxtaposition of the figure’s schematic, archetypal body with her intricately detailed face; the child has been inducted into the Western pantheon from which her race had previously excluded her.

    White’s consecration of his subject coalesces his scholarly comprehension of Western art history—he most frequently spoke of his study of El Greco—with his dedication to the majestic
      Francisco de Zubaran, The Madonna of the Carthusians, circa 1630-1650. Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville, Photo credit: Scala / Art Resource, NY
    representation of African Americans. This socially-committed appropriation of Renaissance imagery impacted the work of one of his students to such a degree that is impossible to overstate: that of Kerry James Marshall, whose depictions of black life are replete with references to the Old Masters. Marshall espoused, “Charles White kept common cause with the great masters of art history, holding up his end and passing the torch to the generations that followed him."[i]

      “He is a true master of pictorial art, and nobody else has drawn the black body with more elegance and authority. No other artist has inspired my own devotion to a career in image making more than he did”
    – Kerry James Marshall 


    In Dialogue with Black History


    Like many of White’s other masterful drawings, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is titled after a traditional Negro spiritual dating back to slavery-era Americawhen it was customary to sell slave children away from their familieswhich was commonly recited during the Civil Rights movement. A metaphor for the African American experience, the spiritual can be interpreted as alluding to a slave yearning for his family or homeland from which he’s been forcibly parted. White puts a face to this lament, bringing visual representation to the song’s youth in his drawing; the present work represents a union of histories, in which the artist approaches the history of art via his own black heritage.



    Forefather of a New Era 


    Through his relentless dedication to figurative depictions of African Americans during the height of apolitical post-war abstraction, White acted as a sort of paternal figure to the next generation of black artists, many of whom where his students. He was a devoted instructor throughout his entire life, but his longest tenure was at the Otis Art Institute (now the Otis College of Art and Design), where he taught drawing and was an invaluable mentor to numerous leading contemporary artists, such as Marshall and David Hammons, both of which have repeatedly acknowledged White’s formidable influence on their oeuvres. The founding father of post-war black figuration, White championed African American history and life and inspired entire generations to fearlessly explore their pasts, identities, and experiences.

    [i] Kerry James Marshall, “A Black Artist Named White,” Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, pp. 15-19. 


  • Cut from the Archives

    • Provenance

      ACA Galleries, New York
      Private Collection, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, American Contemporary Art Gallery; Los Angeles, Harris Hall, University of Southern California, Charles White, March 17 - May 4, 1958, no. 3, n.p.
      New York, ACA Galleries, Visions of America: A Black Perspective, February 5 - March 15, 2011
      Durham, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Realism and Surrealism in the United States, 1930 - 1960, October 2018 - October 2019 (titled as Girl with a Red Cape)

    • Literature

      Andrea Barnwell, Charles White, Essex, 2002, p. 63
      Charles White: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2018, p. 221

    • Artist Biography

      Charles White

      Charles White’s aspirational artworks chronicled the African American experience during the 20th century. White’s work depicted American American life during the Civil Rights Struggle; he believed that art occupied a central position in the movement and worked to advance its ideals. He was particularly renowned for his use of printmaking and murals to reach a wider audience. White created what he called “images of dignity,” uplifting the African American community and making its history and struggles visible. 

      White was born in Chicago in 1918 and attended the Art Institute of Chicago despite being rejected from several other art schools on the basis of his race. In addition to his work as a painter, White was also a gifted teacher and a leader in his community. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, he took up a position teaching at the Otis Art Institute, where David Hammons, and Kerry James Marshall were among his students. Considered one of the leading figures of post-war black figuration, his oeuvre was celebrated in a major travelling retrospective in 2018 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and The Art Institute of Chicago. 

      View More Works

Property of a European Private Collector


Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

signed and dated “CHARLES WHITE ‘58” lower right; further signed and titled ““SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD” CHARLES WHITE” on the reverse
ink and wash on board
40 x 52 7/8 in. (101.6 x 134.3 cm)
Executed in 1958.

Full Cataloguing

$700,000 - 1,000,000 

Sold for $800,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 2 July 2020