Charles Alston


Charles Alston moved to New York City with his family during the Great Migration.  He played an instrumental role during the Harlem Renaissance, a movement inspired by the movement of blacks from the South to the North.  In the 1930s he founded the Harlem Art Workshop and became the first black supervisor of the Federal Art Project, all the while enjoying art, jazz and the Harlem scene.  Most notable due to criticism, Alston led the design of murals for Harlem’s hospitals.  Within his paintings, Alston depicts the lives of African Americans, both trivial and notable.  He served as a mentor for Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, among others a part of the 306 group.  This artists group connected practicing African Americans in the North with younger artists migrating from the South.  Alston helped foster a community of black artists similar to the sense of community he depicted within his paintings of life in Harlem.  He takes a positive perspective within his artwork, capturing essences of hope within the daily lives of African Americans in the North.

Family in Cityscape

Family in City

oil on canvas (1966)

In order to fully understand artwork that transpired as a result of the Great Migration, there should exist familiarity with the concept of community.  Leaving their homes in the South, it was essential for African Americans to find a new way of life in the North and recreate the communities and close ties they left behind.  By capturing different aspects of Harlem in a positive light, the black community becomes one of strength and pride.  This piece illustrates a young family of three children sitting in front of a city scene that stands as the backdrop.  The family has migrated from the South and is now beginning their life together in the North.  The children are sitting on their parents’ laps and holding onto one another, which conveys a sense of closeness.  The husband is looking to his wife and bringing the family tighter together.  The sun is shining in the sky rendering a scene of optimism for the promising future the city holds for the family.

Family Group

Charles Alston Family Group

oil on canvas (1950)

Another painting in which Alston depicts a family scene is Family Group.   His series of family images was inspired by a trip he took back to the South in the 1940s.  The somewhat blank faces of the four figures suggest the viewpoint whites had of blacks.  The mother is sitting while her husband and two children are standing.  Alston’s placement of color brings together the children and parents through interacting geometric shapes.  The simple look creates a very calm and serene setting in which there is hope for the future.  Although the parents appear somber and serious, the children create a sense of optimism moving forward.  The simple form and content depict life of African Americans as it is without trying to convey any deep messages.


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