Elizabeth Catlett

Seated Woman, 1993


Published August 2020 

Elizabeth Catlett, Seated Woman, 1993
Elizabeth Catlett, Seated Woman, 1993. Yellow onyx. The Henry D. Miller Fund. 1993.20

An artist and activist, Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) created works that speak to the human condition, social injustice, and the Black experience in the twentieth century. As she entered the predominantly white and male world of the visual arts in the 1940s, she confronted boundaries that she thought would be impenetrable, but vowed that she would persevere without sacrificing “one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity.” Primarily a sculptor and printmaker, Catlett often portrayed subjects of African descent. She is revered for her works that depict the physical and maternal strength of Black women and people of color who fought for justice, such as Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, and Malcolm X.

Catlett’s Seated Woman, 1993, is made of sumptuous golden onyx. Its fluid surfaces reflect light in the graceful curves of the sitter’s proud and regal pose. We have a desire to understand the character of this woman, wondering what she is thinking, where she has been, and what she sees. This luminous work of art is an invitation to imagine the world around this meditative figure. This is the work of an artist…inviting us to see the world from her eyes.

Installation view of "Seated Woman" in the exhibition "SHE: Images of Female Power from the Collection", August 20, 2016-April 2, 2017.
Installation view of Seated Woman in the exhibition SHE: Images of Female Power from the Collection, August 20, 2016-April 2, 2017. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.

Catlett was born and raised in Washington, D.C., the daughter of educators. She attended Howard University (B.S., 1935), where she studied under Lois Mailou Jones and Alain Locke. Catlett had been admitted to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1932, but was refused admission when the school learned that she was Black. In 2008, when she was 93, Catlett was presented with an honorary Doctorate degree and a one-woman exhibition at Carnegie Mellon University, just one of many solo exhibitions during her lifetime.

After receiving her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1940, Catlett moved to New York City where she taught and socialized with artists, authors, and intellectuals like W.E.B. Dubois, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Jacob Lawrence. In 1946, Catlett moved to Mexico City, where she worked as an artist at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), a famous graphic arts workshop that promoted socio-political issues. She worked for the TGP for twenty years and became the head of the sculpture department for the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas. While in Mexico, she also became involved with Communist Party members and was put under surveillance by the U.S. government and barred from re-entry to the United States. Declared an “undesirable alien,” unable to visit her ailing mother in the U.S., Catlett renounced her American citizenship in 1962 and became a Mexican citizen. She later regained her American citizenship in 2002.

Our understanding of Catlett as a woman creating art for social change informs our perspective of her work. We return to our questions about the world around Seated Woman. Catlett was successful during her lifetime and used her influence to speak about her experiences, saying that being a Black woman sculptor before was “unthinkable… There were very few black women sculptors–maybe five or six–and they all have very tough circumstances to overcome. You can be black, a woman, a sculptor, a printmaker, a teacher, a mother, a grandmother, and keep a house. It takes a lot of doing, but you can do it. All you have to do is decide to do it.”