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Sharecropper, 1952
Elizabeth Catlett, American
Block: 17 13/16 x 16 3/4 inches (45.2 x 42.5 cm) Sheet: 22 1/8 x 19 inches (56.2 x 48.3 cm)
Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, 1999
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Sharecropper by Elizabeth Catlett

I’m not thinking about doing things new and different. I’m thinking about creating art for my people. —Elizabeth Catlett

About This Art

A woman wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a jacket fastened with a safety pin looks intently beyond the edge of this picture. Although her hair is turning white, she is lean and strong. Highlights on her cheekbone, broad nose, and lower lip make a striking contrast with the deep black shadows that define her neck and upper lip. Despite wearing humble clothes, she exudes strength, wisdom, and dignity. We see this sharecropper from below, which makes her appear larger than life, like a hero.

A sharecropper is a person who lives and grows crops on land owned by someone else, paying the rent by giving the owner a share of the crops. After the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), many former slaves became sharecroppers. Because they were obliged to give up huge amounts of their crops, many led harsh lives of poverty. Elizabeth Catlett admired the strength and perseverance of African Americans when faced with such adversity and injustice.

About This Artist

Catlett was born in Washington, D.C., in 1915. After graduating from Howard University, she became an art teacher. She earned a master’s degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa and continued teaching in the South and in New York City. In 1946 she traveled to Mexico to study sculpture and to be a guest artist at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art). Her goal of making art for working people meshed perfectly with the philosophy and aesthetics of the Taller artists. In 1947 Catlett married a Mexican artist, then raised three sons and created her own art while also heading the sculpture department at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Cosechadora de algodón (“cotton harvester” in Spanish) was the first title of this print.

To make this relief print, Catlett cut away parts of the flat surface of a piece of linoleum with chisels. With a roller, she then covered the surface with black ink. After carefully placing a piece of white paper on top of the ink-covered linoleum, she ran the linoleum and the paper through a printing process. When the paper was lifted off the linoleum, all the cut-out lines and shapes remained white while the paper that touched the uncarved area was coated with black ink. Hundreds of white lines and shapes appear to swim all over the paper in an almost miraculous variety of textures and patterns, creating the three-dimensional forms of the sharecropper’s face and clothing and giving energy to the entire composition.

We did linoleum prints because that is a suitable medium for public art—easy and inexpensive and you can make the editions as large as you need them. —Elizabeth Catlett

Catlett learned to work collectively with the artists at the Taller de Gráfica Popular. These artists critiqued, and even worked on, each other’s pictures. They also showed works in progress to the groups they served—trade unions and anti-illiteracy campaigns—asking for their comments, and making changes when requested. Catlett became skilled in various printmaking techniques and knowledgeable about the artistic traditions of Mexico, from pre-Columbian sculpture to the frescoes of Diego Rivera.

Elizabeth Catlett’s lifelong goal is to create art that anyone can understand and find uplifting. She draws upon her experiences as an African American female artist in both the United States and Mexico to create prints and sculptures that focus on women and their struggles as mothers, workers, and fighters for social justice.

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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