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Eldzier Cortor: The Painter of African-American Beauty


Depicting the scenes of African-American social life and representing black women in numerous ways in cramped urban living spaces, the African-American artist and printmaker, Eldzier Cortor, is celebrated for his elongated and graceful depictions of the African-American woman, sometimes juxtaposed against scenes of chaos and desolation.

Best known for his study of the black female nude form, Cortor was born on January 10, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia. Participating in the Great Migration of black families from the rural South, his family moved to Chicago in 1917. Initially, he attended Englewood High School and later went on to study at the Art Institute of Chicago, gaining a degree in 1936.

In 1938, Cortor joined the easel painting division of the WPA Federal Art Project, and he spent five years creating social realist paintings illustrating life in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. During this time, he helped establish the Southside Community Art Center. In the mid-1940s he was awarded fellowships that allowed him to study art and culture in the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, and the elegance and strength that he observed in African-American women there inspired his most-popular works.

Cortor first came to popular recognition in 1946, when his painting “Southern Gate” (1942-43) was featured in Life magazine. In 1949, he received the Guggenheim Fellowship which enabled him to continue his education in Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica, where he was exposed to new examples of art and culture in the African diaspora. After returning from that trip, he created a series of prints, “L’Abbatoire”, that evoked the political violence of Haiti. He also taught at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince from 1949 to 1951.

In the early 1950s, Cortor settled in New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life. During that time, he met Sophia Schmidt, whom he married and remained with until her death in 2006.

Cortor’s work was housed in the collections of the Art Institute, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it was featured in “America Is Hard to See” (2015), the show that opened the new home of New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

In later life, Cortor became more occupied with graphic depiction and also continued to paint his trademark portraits of women. A living representative of the golden age of African-American art, he attracted more and more attention from curators as the years passed.

At the age of 99, Eldzier Cortor died on November 26, 2015, in Long Island, New York.



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