The Hewitt Collection of African - American Art

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture

Collected over 50 years by John and Vivian Hewitt, this exhibit includes masterworks by African - American artists, including Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Henry O. Tanner and Hale Woodruff. In 1998, Bank of America acquired this Collection, which visited 25 museums before arriving at its permanent home, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts+Culture, in 2009. The Hewitt Collection of African - American Art is an assemblage of works that celebrates the expression and passion of 20 artists and two avid collectors.

The Hewitts: Lifelong Collectors
John and Vivian Hewitt met in Atlanta in 1949. John began teaching at Morehouse College in 1948 and Atlanta University hired Vivian to work in the library in 1949. The Hewitts bought their first original work from Vivian's cousin, J. Eugene Grigsby. While Grigsby was in graduate school at New York University, completing a doctorate in art education under Hale Woodruff, he introduced the Hewitts to the black cultural elite in New York City. Through Grigsby, they met Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, and Norman Lewis. Adele Glasgow, John's sister, also introduced her brother and sister-in-law to the black cultural elite. Through Glasgow the couple met Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest Crichlow, Earl Hill, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Margaret Burroughs. By 1978 the Hewitts were firmly entrenched in the art world of black New York.
Charles Alston (1907-1977)
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston's family moved to New York City during World War I. In Woman Washing Clothes, the posture of the figure obscures her face. 
John Biggers (1924-2001)
Born 13 April 1924, Biggers was born into a large and closely knit family in the mill town of Gastonia, North Carolina. John Biggers, internationally recognized as a leading educator and artist, is best known as an outstanding muralist. His accomplishments also include drawings, prints, easel paintings, sculptures, and book illustrations that celebrate the linkage among the styles and cultures of Africa, the United States, and the rural South.

Biggers stated that "the role of art is to express the triumphs of the human spirit" and "to express the profound beauty of the Afro-American people." His works in this Collection show his exploration of the family as a sacred unit.

Circles enliven the intimate scene and literally link man and woman uniting the human and celestial. The circle unites binaries, such as man and woman, which echo the Chinese yin and yang.

Margaret Burroughs (1917-2010)
Best known as the guiding force behind the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago, Illinois, Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs received international recognition as an artist, an educator, a poet, and a social activist. Warsaw numbers among the images she made of the Polish and Moscovite church architecture which she saw on her journey through Eastern Europe. 
Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012)
The lithograph Head of a Woman (1967) emblematizes Catlett's oeuvre. In this piece, Catlett isolates her subject's face in order to focus the woman's intense gaze on the viewer. Both the subject matter and the composition prioritize the black woman-who has historically been relegated to a secondary role in the art of Europe and the Americas-and accord her strength of character and intellectual self-sufficiency. 
Ernest Crichlow (1914-2005)
Primarily a figurative painter, Crichlow has concentrated on those who live in his Brooklyn neighborhood: "I try to show all of the emotions rather than just the conflict. I'm interested in clarity." One emotion, however, that stands out is entrapment. Barred by barbed wire, banisters, or railings, or impeded by narrow windows, Crichlow's figures express the limitations that many cannot overcome.

This piece focuses on the high contrast of dark skin and white clothing. Rhythmic movement characterized by subtle body language signals silent communication among the women.

Crichlow's most well-known painting, the piece juxtaposes deep colors and light passages. Like many of his signature works, the subject has a pensive countenance.

Owing to his Caribbean Heritage, Crichlow was fascinated by the character of the island people and visited regularly until the mid-1990s. His use of high contrast is evident in this image.

In this piece, barbed wire restrains a young girl suggesting that external forces limit her opportunities. Her gaze reaches far beyond the restraining wire, implying that she overcomes her situation with her mind.

James Denmark (b. 1936)
The Hewitt Collection includes four of Denmark's work which, besides demonstrating the artist's ease with a variety of media, the pieces typify his ability to render complex volumes and relationships with only a few expressive lines, as well as his sophisticated use of intense color. 

This piece, and Two Generations, typify Denmark's ability to render complex volumes and relationships with only a few expressive lines, as well as his sophisticated use of intense color.

Denmark began to work extensively in collage while living in New York. He worked with a variety of materials, including found objects and paper, in a manner that was reminiscent of his grandmother's quilts.

Jonathan Green (b. 1955)
Painter and print-maker Jonathan Green was born in 1955 in Gardens Corner, South Carolina, the second of Ruth and Melvin Green's seven children. His unique vision manifested early. As the artist told journalist Rick Compton, some of his earliest interest in design and form could be traced to his childhood chore of raking the front yard: "I started becoming interested in designs I could make with the rake. After awhile, the neighbors began commenting and asking if I could do some drawings for them."

Green's paintings are based on personal recollections of traditions preserved in his community. These traditions are generally expressed through communal activities of work, worship, and social gatherings.

J. Eugene Grigsby (1918-2013)
J. Eugene Grigsby's art incorporates numerous media, styles, and subjects. Primarily a painter and print-maker, he uses sources from African, Caribbean, Native American, and European art. As an internationally recognized and award-winning art educator for almost fifty years, Grigsby influenced hundreds, if not thousands, of students. His roles as both artist and educator are inseparable. 

Grigsby's book, Art and Ethnics: Background for Teaching Youth in a Pluralistic Society (1977), numbers among the earliest texts on multicultural art. He celebrates the stylistic influence of the Kwakwaka'wakw, a Pacific Northwest Coast indigenous people, in this image.

This serigraph visualizes the symbolic bridge between the Americas and Africa; the bridge evokes both painful and positive histories through the connection including the Diaspora, slave ships, and the dissemination of artistic traditions to new generations in the new lands.

Yemaya, the female figure in this lithograph, rules over the seas and the lakes as the mother of all humanity and is also associated with the moon, fertility, and labor. Brought to the New World by slave descendants in Cuba and Brazil, Yemaya, through her attributes offers comfort and sustenance.

Earl Hill (1927-1985)
Hill was born in New York in 1927, but spent much of his youth in Bells Mills, a town in rural Virginia. In both his teaching and his art, he attempted to foster an understanding of the humanity of the black community. 

The title of this piece invokes Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World, the painting in which a young woman in a grassy field seemingly crawls toward a distant house. For the ambiguous figure of Christina, Hill substituted two Black woman whose "world" consists of labor.

This oil piece depicts the artist's daughter, Paula, at age nine. Hill captured his daughter's energy by using pose and execution to engender a sense of movement and dynamism.

Alvin C. Hollingsworth (1928-2001)
His West Indian parents instilled a strong work ethic that when combined with his prodigious energy has resulted in his engagement with media ranging from collage to television to poetry. Nevertheless, painting and printmaking most often convey his subjects including biblical themes, women, the city, and the role of the African-American artist. 

The pyramidal composition of this image not only evokes the monumental figural compositions of the Italian Renaissance, but also suggests striving and growth.

African Village couples oil washes with India ink, joining the artist's early abstract expressionist tendencies with the graphic sensibility he had honed as an illustrator.

Washes of color outline the figures, pooling with greater intensity around the heads, including the forceful silhouette of a black woman, a favored motif that invests this figurative composition with specific meaning.

Ronald Joseph (1910-1992)
Ronald Joseph was born in 1910 in St. Kitts in the British West Indies. His mother, a charwoman, gave the infant to Theophilus and Henrietta Joseph, with whom he moved to New York City around 1920. Joseph described his artistic project as an effort to express himself "in terms of elementals. I wanted to find out to what extent I could paint a painting from the inside-the inside of me." His work evinces a broad familiarity with modes of abstraction.

This piece demonstrates Joseph's interest in the cubism of Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Jaun Gris. However, unlike the monochromatic compositions of the cubists, Joseph uses color, as well as form to structure Still Life.

The composition of this piece, white figures on a black background with overlapping black elements, confounds any attempt to identify racial characteristics and suggests that skill, rather than race, characterizes the musician--and the artist.

Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
Painter Jacob Lawrence is a master storyteller as well as a master of compositional design whose complicated method of figurative abstraction challenges art aficionados without alienating laymen. Lawrence has made a career of communicating black experiences through his visual narratives based on African-American history and culture. 
Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-2000)
Lee-Smith's combination of skilled representation and elusive content has prompted many viewers to describe his style as magic realism, classism, or romantic realism. Lee-Smith has described his work more simply: "As an artist, I'm always trying to change things from what they are." 
Virginia Evans Smit (b. 1936)
Virginia Evans Smit continually expands the expectations and definations of printmaking through her innovative techniques and vision. She is also an eloquent spokesperson and teacher of art. Harlem Games is her first color woodcut. 
Ann Tanksley (b. 1934)
Tanksley has a voracious eye for forms and styles and has drawn upon the art of France and the Caribbean, as well as the work of African-American artists. Although she is best known for her imagistic response to the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, the three works in the Hewitt Collection demonstrate her ongoing search for new sources of inspiration. 

The subject matter of this piece derives not only from Tanksley's enduring interest in black workers, but also from her conversations with her cousin who had worked on the Panama Canal.

Tanksley has described the piece as a self-portrait, one of only a few in her oeuvre, and as an exploration of the interplay between graphics and painting.

Henry O. Tanner (1859-1937)
The most celebrated turn-of-the-century African-American artist was Henry Ossawa Tanner. He spent much of his adult life in Paris where the Pittsburgh native found a level of personal and professional acceptance that had eluded him in the United States. Today Tanner and his work have reached a new pinnacle of popularity owing to the complexity of his persona as a cosmopolitan expatriate painter and his enduring legacy as an inspirational figure for African-American artists. 

Tanner often developed compositions from studies of models, like the turbaned man depicted in this image.

Ellis Wilson (1899-1977)
Wilson avoided racially provocative themes instead choosing to depict blacks in the spirit of modern realism-wherever and however he observed them. This was true of his paintings of the South as well as those completed between the early 1950s and his death in 1977. But the form of these later works shifted toward more colorful stylizations as a result of four trips to Haiti. 
Frank Wimberley (b. 1926)
Although Frank Wimberley's nonrepresentational works are grounded in both abstract expressionism and European modernism, they also reflect his emotional and intellectual experience and serve as a testament to his artistic process. As a young man Wimberley saw the work of the abstract expressionists, admired their methods, and aspired to their accomplishments. Ultimately, however, Wimberley believes that an artist's vision determines his style, rather than the examples set by others. 
Hale A. Woodruff (1900-1980)
Born in 1900 in Cairo, Illinois, Hale Woodruff, an only child, began drawing to entertain himself while his mother was at work. A talented muralist, Woodruff also excelled as a water-colorist and graphic artist. A lifelong educator, the Hewitt Collection also includes work by one of Woodruff's early students, J. Eugene Grigsby. 

Woodruff drew and painted eroticized torsos, both male and female. At first glance, the torsos appear to be highly abstract pieces.

The vertical arrangement of forms, the formal and chromatic isolation, and the appendage-like projections symbolize both sentinel and gate.

Credits: Story

All biographical notes and text are taken from The Hewitt Collection catalog, printed by Bank of America in 1999 and edited by Todd D. Smith.

Any additional information written by Caroline Manning with contributions by Monet Lockhart, Jaianna McCants and Alexys Taylor.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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