Charles Alston

Charles Henry Alston (1907–1977)
oil on canvas,
48 x 64 in.,
Charles Alston Estate Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Sydney Smith Gordon, TR2007-4

Charles Alston-Painter-Sculptor, Illustrator, Muralist-Teacher And A Member Of The Harlem Renaissance Artists Group.

Alston was the first African-American supervisor for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project. Alston designed and painted murals at the Harlem Hospital and the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. In 1990 Alston's bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. became the first image of an African American displayed at the White House.

Charles Henry Alston was born in Charlotte, NC on 11.28.1907, Charles Henry Alston was born in Charlotte, Reverend Primus Priss Alston and Anna Elizabeth (Miller) Alston, as the youngest of five children. Three survived past infancy: Charles, his older sister Rousmaniere and his older brother Wendell. His father had been born into slavery in 1851 in Pittsboro, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he gained an education and graduated from St. Augustine's College in Charlotte.

He became a prominent minister and founder of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, with an African-American congregation. The senior Alston was described as a "race man": an African American who dedicated his skills to the furtherance of the black race. Reverend Alston met his wife when she was a student at his school. Charles was nicknamed "Spinky" by his father, and kept the nickname as an adult. In 1910, when Charles was three, his father died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Locals described his father as the "Booker T. Washington of Charlotte". Soon after his father died, his mother moved to New York and married Harry P. Bearden (the uncle of artist Romare Bearden).
Alston attended DeWitt Clinton High School, taught there, and graduated from Columbia University in 1929. In 1931, he received a master’s degree from Columbia’s Teachers College.

Alston directed art programs and community centers in the New York area including the Harlem Workshop. Jacob Lawrence as one of his students at Utopia House. He directed the 35 artists who created the Harlem Hospital murals for the Federal Arts Project in 1935 and 1936, painting two of the murals himself. Many of Alston’ works were published in the New Yorker, Fortune, and Collier’s magazines. In 1950, he sold a painting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and also became the first Black instructor at the Art Students league.

He later taught at the Museum of Modern Art and City College of New York while receiving many awards. Alston’s best-known paintings are "Family" and "Walking" at the Whitney Museum and a private collection respectively. In 1975, he was the first recipient of Columbia University’s Distinguished Alumni Award.

Charles Alston and his wife, Myra A. Logan (a surgeon) died of cancer within months of each other in 1977.

Source: A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to Present
by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Copyright 1993 by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson
Pantheon Books, NY
ISBN 0-394-57016-2

About The Painting

In 1958, Charles Alston created Walking, a vibrant painting that depicts a group of walking women composed of sturdy shapes and outlined by vivid slabs of color. Inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott and the determined actions of the mostly unrecognized women who orchestrated it, Alston employed abstract techniques to evoke the resolute energy that sustained the protest for more than a year in the mid-1950s. By constructing the cluster of women on the left out of broad, vertical bands of color, and by contrasting them with the women on the right, whom he painted with upward turning faces and with angular limbs that suggestion motion, Alston created a striking left-to-right transition that conveys a sense of spontaneous but purposeful movement. Alston recalled, "It was a very definite walk—not going back, no hesitation"— a mood he captured with his bold handling of paint and carefully arranged scene.

From late 1955 through 1956, a successful and hard fought boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama, inspired people across the United States and around the world. Though these events brought international fame to two prominent civil rights figures—a young reverend named Martin Luther King Jr. and a seamstress and activist named Rosa Parks—the boycott also represented a triumph of local grassroots activism on a massive scale. Organized by black women’s political groups and facilitated through churches, the boycott mobilized thousands of black workers to avoid using segregated city buses to protest the unequal and demeaning practices of segregation. Years later, the figures of King and Parks loom large, but the boycotters themselves—and their exhausting, and at times humiliating, effort of walking to work day after day—are often overlooked.

By focusing his painting on unidentified women and, at center, two children, Alston presented an inclusive rendition of the figures that formed the backbone of the Civil Rights movement. His use of abstraction universalizes the notion of protest, inviting it any and everywhere. Painted in 1958, before the 1965 civil rights marches in Alabama, this canvas seems prescient. "The idea of a march was growing," Alston recalled. "It was in the air … and this painting just came. I called it Walking on purpose." Reimagining the daily drudgery of traveling by foot as a determined march, Alston at once celebrates the actions of the protesters of segregated Montgomery and elevates the mundane act of walking to something monumental and heroic.