Elizabeth Catlett & the Art of Stone Carving

“Stone imposes a certain discipline which cannot be ignored.”

The October 7, 2021 African American Art auction includes two impressive carved sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett which bookend her half-century practice as one of our great twentieth-century sculptors. Head in limestone is one of her only two known 1940s stone sculptures; Nude Torso in black marble embodies Catlett’s late body of work.


Elizabeth Catlett, Head, carved limestone, 1943. Estimate $150,000 to $250,000.

Head is a portrait of a young man in limestone that is an important sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett. Her only other recorded 1940s limestone sculpture is Mother and Child, her 1940 University of Iowa MFA thesis project. Catlett’s Head shows her synthesis of her studies and interest in depicting modern African American subjects in the early 1940s. Melanie Herzog describes Catlett’s education at the University of Iowa, and how in her second year of graduate studies, she focused on sculpture—learning several techniques in bronze, stone, wood, terra cotta and plaster. But it was Mother and Child, the centerpiece of her 1940 thesis project, that crystallized many of her interests; as Catlett wrote in her thesis, “stone imposes a certain discipline which cannot be ignored.”

Her work won First Award in Sculpture in the 1940 American Negro Exhibition in Chicago, and caught the interest of James A. Porter who included an image and description of Mother and Child in his 1943 Modern Negro Art. Porter wrote “it is a pity that this young woman has had so few opportunities to continue her work in stone.” In 1942, Herzog describes how after moving to New York, Catlett also studied with the French-Russian emigre and modernist sculptor Ossip Zadkine – taking private lessons from him that summer, while working in terra cotta. Zadkine was also a stone carver, and helped Catlett develop a modernist sense of abstraction in her work by simplifying the forms of the human figure. Head displays Catlett’s emerging modern approach to African American subjects in the 1940s.

Nude Torso

Nude Torso is an impressive late-career work in black marble. The figure is an iconic work by Elizabeth Catlett – one of her most recognizable forms that typifies her representation of women. In Nude Torso, Catlett transforms the traditional contrapposto pose of classical nudes to  convey the confidence of a strong, modern woman. Catlett creates a perfect balance in describing a curvaceous figure that is as powerful as it is sensuous. In Melanie Herzog’s Elizabeth Catlett An American Artist in Mexico, Catlett describes her work as representations of women, black women and herself: “I am a black woman. I use my body in working. When I am bathing or dressing, I see and feel how my body looks and moves. I never do sculpture from a nude model…Mostly watch women.”

Nude Torso‘s beautiful natural material gives it additional meaning. The marble and its highly polished finish also convey sensuality and natural movement. Catlett’s work in marble, onyx and mahogany were all chosen to bring out the material’s inherent beauty. The artist’s attention to the natural material is evident – the effects of the black marble are enhanced by its highly polished, luminous surface. Catlett stated: “I like to finish sculpture to the maximum beauty attainable from the material from which it is created.” In Nude Torso we see a culmination of Catlett’s five decades of sculpting in stone.

Related Reading: Fine Sculpture by African-American Artists
Notes from the Catalogue: Elizabeth Catlett’s Varied Mediums

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