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Untitled (1950) by Charles White

Charles White drawing

Untitled, 1950, ink and graphite on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment

Charles White is one of the leading African American artists of the twentieth century. He is best known for the masterful drawings he created throughout his career. In this very intense composition, two figures stare out of a narrow window. The young girl cradles a large doll in her arms. The doll is missing its head, arms, and feet. The larger second figure is possibly an older brother, or perhaps her mother. The cramped space of this composition, made even more confined by the two horizontal planks across the window frame, creates a feeling of tension and claustrophobia.

This drawing is charged with ambiguities and possibilities. What are the figures looking at? What is their relationship? Are they both even looking at the same thing? Why is the doll missing parts of her body? Does her truncated body suggest the limited opportunities the little girl will face? Do the two boards across the window simply confine the figures, or do they also represent how the lives of these two figures are barred from full development by restrictions imposed on people of their race? This powerful composition expresses the anxieties of African American people in pre-civil rights days without reference to a specific incident.

White's bold composition and intensity of expression in this drawing make it one of his most memorable images. His mastery of line to suggest the distinct textures of skin, hair, cloth, and wood, reveal his stature as one of the leading draftsmen of the twentieth century. This drawing, which the Museum acquired in 2009, is featured in the exhibition Graphic Masters II: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.