An uncompromising artist with a singular vision, Eldzier Cortor has celebrated the beauty and spiritual strength of black women in his painting and lithographs for more than five decades.
He was born on January 10, 1916, in Richmond, Virginia. His father was a self-taught electrician who moved his family to Chicago, Illinois, when Eldzier was still an infant. The senior Cortar opened a grocery store and appliance repair shop with his wife and later became one of the first black pilots in the United States. His son began copying comic strips as a boy and aspired to become a cartoonist. At Englewood High School, he met fellow student CHARLES WHITE, another future African-American artist.
Cortor dropped out of high school and went to work to help support his family. He continued, however, to pursue his interest in art in evening drawing classes at the Chicago Art Institute. He was finally able to attend the institute full-time at the age of 25. A white teacher from Texas exposed him to the exquisite sculpture of Africa and helped convince Cortor to pursue fine art. After finishing school he went to work in 1937 on federal arts projects for the Works Progress Administration. He also taught art at the South Side Community Arts Center.
Cortor was awarded a Rosenwald Fellowship and used the money to travel to the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast. Here he lived among the native African Americans called Gullah, who had strong cultural ties to Africa. About this time he abandoned his earlier abstract art for a more representational style of painting that focused on African-American people. He later moved to New York and studied at the National Institute of Design and Columbia University, where he learned woodblock printing. Cortor mastered the art of lithography, in which prints are made from an original work of art. This allowed him to sell inexpensive copies of one painting and freed him from having to work with galleries to sell his artwork.
Cortor began to create the stunning, statuesque nude black women that he is best known for. Heavily influenced by African sculpture, his paintings of nudes have the shape and weight of sculptures with their full, elongated bodies. These strong women sometimes appeared within the crowded, sordid confines of an urban apartment. Rather than make them less noble, such surroundings only brought their power and dignity to the fore.
A photograph of one of Cortor’s paintmgs appeared in Life magazine in 1946 and brought him national attention. It also earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to the West Indian islands of Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti. He fell in love with the African-derived culture of Haiti and remained there for two years, teaching drawing at the Haitian Centre d’Art in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
On his return to the States, Cortor lived in Chicago and then New York City. When sales of his paintings fell off during the politically conservative 1950s, he lived in Mexico for several years. Returning to the United States, he grew tired of the politics involved in dealing with art galleries and sold his lithographs directly through the Associated American Artists of New York. The only other avenue for his work is competitive, juried museum shows. Eldzier Cortor has remained faithful to his nudes, which he refers to as his “classical compositions,” and has not changed his style to take advantage of current arttrends and fashions.
He created paintings that he has said “can fit into any period—not locked into a style that will go out of date … I very carefully try to keep things from being the latest style—the latest thing.”
Back in 1940, he said, “I want to paint, never reach any set goals, always work towards an ideal.” Now in his 90s, Eldzier Cortor is still working toward that ideal.
Bearden, Romare, and Harry Henderson. A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to thePresent. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993, pp. 272-279.
Riggs, Thomas, ed. St. James Guide to Black Artists. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1997, p. 121.
Robinson, jontyle Theresa, David Driskell and Others. Three Masters: Eldzier Cortor, Hughie Lee-Smith, Archibald John Motley Jr. New York: Kenkeleba Gallery, 1988.