Charles Henry Alston was an early twentieth-century African American painter, sculptor, and illustrator. He is best known for the Martin Luther King sculpture he made in the 1970s and was installed at the White House in 1990. The bust is notable for being the first African-American sculpture to be placed there. Alston was also influenced by the twentieth-century civil rights movement. He created many paintings solely in black and white in order to express racial oneness via his work. He also played a role in bridging the gap between African and other American artists. Alston was highly influenced by Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clementa Orozco, who also used murals as a weapon for social action. He is also recognized for enhancing Harlem’s cultural scene, where he worked and lived. Alston is known for experimenting with a wide range of styles. He began by experimenting with negative forms and organic space, then moved on to painting in a modernist style. He also concentrated on mural work, creating murals for the Harlem Hospital and the Golden State American Museum of Natural History, among others.
Childhood and Adolescence
Charles Henry Alston was born on November 28, 1907, in North Carolina, to Reverend Primus Priss Alston and Anna Elizabeth Miller Alston. He was the youngest of five children, two of whom died while they were still young. His father was born into slavery and was only able to become a minister and the founder of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church after overcoming numerous obstacles.
His mother married Harry Bearden after his father died. Romare Bearden, a well-known American artist, became Charles’ cousin through the marriage. Bearden was also noted for his civil rights activism. He had a big influence on Alston when he was younger.
During the Great Migration of 1915, their family, along with almost six million other African Americans, relocated to New York. Though the family initially fared well, they would subsequently suffer greatly during the Great Depression, which began in August 1929.
Charles Alston attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he was noted for his artistic abilities. He became the school magazine’s art editor, as well as a member of the Arista-National Honor Society and a student at the National Academy of Art.
At a young age, he became a member of the Harlem community. Later, he was offered a scholarship to the Yale School of Fine Arts by the University of Yale, but he declined and continued his education at Columbia. He worked for the ‘Columbia Daily Spectator,’ Columbia University’s weekly student newspaper. He also contributed cartoons to the school journal, ‘Jester.’
After graduating in 1929, he went on to Teachers College, where he earned his Master’s degree in 1931.
Career of Charles Alston
After finishing his studies, Charles Alston worked for many periodicals and magazines, including ‘Fortune’ and ‘The New Yorker.’ After that, he spent almost a year in the army, stationed at Fort Huachuca, a United States Army installation, in 1942-43. He also worked as an artist for the Office of War Information and Public Relations for numerous years.
He first began painting abstract works in the 1950s. He also continued to draw figures, switching between the two modes on occasion. Later, he decided to forsake commercial work in order to concentrate on his personal projects. In 1950, his first picture was exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the world’s largest art museum. He had his first solo exhibition at the John Heller Gallery three years later.
He was hired as an educator at the Museum of Modern Art in 1956, making him the first African American to hold this position. He taught for a year here before moving to Belgium.
He co-founded the Spiral group, which became the first collection of African American artists in the United States, with other prominent artists such as Romare Bearden, Normal Lewis, and Hale Woodruff a few years later, in 1963. He was promoted to full professor at City College of New York in 1973.
Major Projects of Charles Alston
Charles Alston’s bronze sculpture of Martin Luther King, which was installed at the White House in 1990, is widely recognized as his best and most well-known piece. The Community Church of New York commissioned Alston for it in 1970 for $5000. This sculpture was also the first African-American work of art to be shown in the White House.
He is also noted for other works such as ‘Portrait of a Man,’ in which he uses pastels and charcoals to convey a detailed and realistic approach. He also developed the films ‘The Girl in a Red Dress’ and ‘The Blue Shirt,’ in which he used new innovative approaches to represent young people in his hometown of Harlem.
Other sculptures he created include ‘Head of a Woman’ in 1957, which adopts a new approach to sculpture by suggesting rather than fully forming face characteristics.
The famed ‘Magic in Medicine’ and ‘Modern Medicine’ murals, which are set opposite each other at the Harlem hospital, were also made by Charles Alston. These two works are considered one, and they demonstrate the disparities between contemporary medicine and traditional healing methods. However, it is still unclear what Alston was trying to portray with this piece of art.
In 1960, he developed a series of religious paintings, including the angular depiction of Jesus Christ known as the ‘Christ Head.’
Achievements & Awards
Charles Alston was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1958.
In 1975, he received Teachers College’s inaugural Distinguished Alumni Award.
President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States appointed him to the National Council on Culture and the Arts. He was also named to the New York City Art Commission by New York City Mayor John Lindsay.
He was the first African American to teach at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as the first African American to have his work displayed at the White House.
Personal History and Legacy
Charles Alston married Myra Adele Logan, a Harlem Hospital intern whom he met while painting on the murals, in 1944.
In January 1977, his wife passed away. Charles died of cancer on April 27, 1977, in the same year.
To celebrate Alston’s years of service, the Arts Students League established a 21-year merit student scholarship after his death.
Estimated Net Worth
Charles is one of the wealthiest American football players, as well as one of the most popular. Charles Alston’s net worth is estimated to be $1.5 million, according to Wikipedia, Forbes, and Business Insider.