Charles Henry Alston
American, 1907 - 1977
Charles Henry Alston was a pioneering American black artist at the height of the civil rights movement. The first black instructor at the Art Students League and the Museum of Modern Art, and the first recipient of Columbia University’s Distinguished Alumni Award, Alston completed numerous works in oil, as well as public murals and mosaics, often in predominantly black neighborhoods. He was widely recognized as an influential artist and teacher whose students include Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Sensitive to political events effecting blacks in America, Alston’s approach included looking to African forms for ways of expressing the African-American experience. Alston’s style was strongly influenced by African masks, but beyond imitating African motifs, he drew from their strong geometric orientation to create works that could participate in the latest developments in abstract modernism. Alston painted numerous portraits of figures from black history, such as Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as completing more personal themes, drawing on his experience of mid-century New York and expressing it in a highly expressive, abstract manner.
Alston worked at the Harlem Arts Workshop run by Augusta Savage at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. When the school needed more space, Alston found additional room at 306 West 141 Street. Known as “306,” the school became a center for Harlem’s creative community. Alston, along with Augusta Savage and Arthur Schomburg, also became a founding member of the Harlem Artists Guild and of Spiral, a group of African-American artists who united to promote the cause of racial equality.