The passing of an American art icon: Elizabeth Catlett

Bittersweet.  The word comes to mind as I take in the sad news that the magnificent Elizabeth Catlett died on Monday.  Just two weeks shy of her 97thbirthday, this pioneering African American printmaker and sculptor had certainly lived life large.  And last week—little knowing Catlett was facing her final days—VMFA paid tribute to this iconic figure, whose early artworks anchor the recently opened exhibition, Making History: 20th Century African American Artists. Representing a wide range of the artist’s output between the 1930s and 1950s, Catlett’s sculpture, painting (such as the stunning oil pictured here), drawings, and prints featured in the show are on public view for the first time in nearly forty years.

At last Thursday’s Community Affairs luncheon, Nicole Hood presented a terrific lecture about Catlett to an enthusiastic audience of over 100 guests.  Dr. Hood surveyed the life of the Washington, D.C., native and described how she built an innovative, influential career in the face of daunting gender and race prejudice.  This tribute was amplified the next evening by internationally acclaimed artist and art historian David C. Driskell, who opened the Making History exhibition by sharing recollections of Catlett and other leading black artists associated with the historic Barnett Aden Gallery.  The warm and enlightening public conversation, facilitated by former VMFA assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, Tosha Grantham, was attended by over 320 guests.  Dr. Driskell noted that “Betty”—as he referred to his a longtime friend and mentor—was “one of the great cultural spirits of the world.”  He described her as “the Queen Mother of African American Art.”

Making History, a free exhibition on view until June 10th, presents more than 50 artworks by 23 known and lesser known artists associated with the Barnett Aden Gallery, operating in Washington, D.C., from 1943 to 1969. Drawn from the local collection of Richmonders Margaret and John Gottwald, this student-organized exhibition is the result of an innovative collaboration between VMFA and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Museum Studies graduate program.

–Dr. Elizabeth L. O’Leary, Associate Curator of American Art

For more information about the Catlett’s life and work, see: and

To learn more about the Making History exhibition, see: