A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. Throughout his distinguished career as an artist and an educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity with its complicated implications. Inspired by the modern idiom of Modigliani and Picasso, as well as African art, Alston’s work addresses both the personal and communal aspects of the black experience.
Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Alston’s parents were educated leaders in that city’s African American community. Although he moved with his family to Harlem at the age of seven, Alston continued to spend summers with his Southern grandmother through his teenage years. It was during these visits that Alston, who had displayed an aptitude for art since early childhood, became fascinated with North Carolina red clay and began dabbling in sculpture. There were few opportunities for an aspiring African American artist to see fine art or receive formal training in Charlotte at the time. This was not the case in Harlem, however, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Though Harlem offered a wider array of cultural offerings, Alston nonetheless continued to confront obstacles imposed by segregation practices in New York.
Drawing political cartoons about race relations—first for his high school magazine and, later, as an undergraduate at Columbia University—provided an outlet for Alston’s artistic and personal expression. Alston, who had enrolled at Columbia in 1925, was not permitted to take life drawing classes because of his race. His talent, however, did not go unnoticed; he was later awarded the Arthur Wesley Dow Fellowship which funded graduate work at Columbia’s Teachers College. It was during his tenure there that he designed the cover for one of Duke Ellington’s jazz albums, as well as book jackets for Langston Hughes and Eudora Welty. Alston enjoyed a successful career as an illustrator for popular magazines during the 1930s and 1940s.
Alston first developed an appreciation for the significance of the African aesthetic to the art world when, during a visit to the Schomberg Collection, he met philosopher Alain Locke. Alston’s involvement in Locke’s New Negro Movement and his engagement with other established Harlem Renaissance artists changed the cultural atmosphere of that community. While still a graduate student at Columbia, he established the Harlem Art Workshop for aspiring artists, as well as an art program for Harlem youth called Utopia House. His studio, located at 306 West 141st Street, became a gathering space for intellectual and creative exchange for African American artists—including Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Bob Blackburn, and Alston’s cousin Romare Bearden. In recognition of his efforts, Alston was appointed the first African American supervisor within the Federal Arts Project in 1935. Alston capitalized on his new position to form the Harlem Artists Guild, an attempt on his part to pressure the Works Progress Administration to fund more black artists. Eager to explore political and aesthetic topics in black art, Alston also cofounded the art collective known as the Spiral Group with Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and others in 1963. Other significant milestones in Alston’s career include serving as the first African American instructor at the Art Students League (1950-1971) and at the Museum of Modern Art.
Alston’s own creative endeavors likewise benefited from his relationships with fellow Harlem artists, including Augusta Savage and James Lesesne Wells, both of whom he met through the Harlem Art Workshop. A self-described “figure painter,” Alston embraced abstraction, but never completely abandoned the figural. As a painter, sculptor, illustrator, and WPA muralist, Alston was inevitably interested in creating visually accessible art that explored human connections. His commitment to promoting African American art and culture never wavered, and he continued to create art and to mentor aspiring artists until his death in 1977. Charles Alston’s work is represented in the collections of the Butler Institute of Art, National Portrait Gallery, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Whitney Museum of Art.