A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. In his distinguished career as an artist and an educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity and 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.

Alston was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, where his parents were educated leaders in that city’s African American community. He moved with his family to Harlem at the age of seven, but continued to spend summers in the South. After matriculating at Columbia University in 1925, Alston was barred from enrolling in drawing classes because of his race. However, his talent did not go unnoticed, and he was later awarded the Arthur Wesley Dow Fellowship which funded graduate work at Columbia’s Teachers College. It was during his time 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, assignments that led to  a successful career as an illustrator for popular magazines during the 1930s and 1940s. A self-described “figure painter,” Alston embraced abstraction, but never completely abandoned the figural.

Alston’s association with Alain Locke and the New Negro Movement began during his graduate school days. He began teaching alongside Augusta Savage at the Harlem Community Art Center and led programing for Harlem youth at 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, and Alston’s cousin Romare Bearden. He was appointed the first African American supervisor within the Federal Art Project in 1935; he capitalized on his new position by forming the Harlem Artists Guild in hopes of convincing the Works Progress Administration to fund more African American artists.

Although he participated in the 1933 Harmon Foundation exhibition, Alston later joined Bearden, Savage, and others in boycotting the program due to its segregated format. Eager to explore political and aesthetic topics in African American art, Alston also cofounded the art collective known as the Spiral Group in 1963. Other significant milestones in Alston’s career include serving as the first African American instructor at the Art Students League and at the Museum of Modern Art. 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.