Elzier Cortor, an African American painter and printmaker, was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1916. His family moved during the Great Migration to Chicago in search of better economic opportunities. After receiving encouragement from his high school art teacher he attended evening art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago after leaving school for the workforce. He enrolled full time in 1937 and learned a great deal about African sculpture from his art history professor; because of this, Cortor’s handling of the human figure reveal qualities also portrayed in African sculpture. He joined the easel division of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and also taught at the South Side Community Art Center. Cortor won many awards one of which was the Julius Rosenwald Fund fellowship to travel to the Sea Islands, off the Georgia coast, where the Gullah, a group pof black Americans had lived for centuries retaining their African traditions. This trip generated Cortor’s passion for painting the beauty of African American women. This signature representation of the black female nude in his artwork represents the cultural richness and beauty of the African Diaspora.
Room No. V
Oil on Masonite (1948).
This painting features a nude woman’s reflection in the mirror of what formerly was an elegant Victorian vanity. Magazine clippings surround the reflection and contain images pointing towards the memories or even fears of the woman. The painting is a combination of beauty and refinement with the sense of waning wealth. The tattered carpet, peeling paint and flaking wallpaper reveal the hard times of the urban African American community represented. Cortor himself notes that the nude black female represents the black race and spirit, “conveying a sense of eternity and continuance of life.” In addition, the pose of the woman, as well as the elongated neck and hand resting on her chin, evoke both African sculptural and European artistic traditions. This blending of art traditions, including African, Afro-Caribbean, Gullah, European and American, is supposed to reflect the complicated culture of African Americans. During a time when abstract art ruled in the American art world, Cortor chose to portray his subject through a representational approach so his concepts and ideas would better come across to the audience.
Dance Composition No. 31
Color intaglio on paper (1978).
This print portrays the main themes that carry throughout most of Cortor’s pieces: images of women and African diaspora cultures. Although this print was produced several decades after Cortor travelled to the Sea Islands to work with the Gullah people, it definitely reflects the artist’s memories of his experience. It portrays the people, customs and crafts of the region; such as, the women’s simple head-wraps, sweetgrass baskets and dances. The elongated features of the figures, as well as the decorative pattering, reference African art and sculpture, although the print could definitely be considered timeless. When portraying the physical and racial characteristics of the Gullahs, Cortor was interested in showing blacks that had been only slightly influenced by white American culture. It is clear in this piece how Cortor’s distinctive style creates an aesthetic statement about African past as well as the black’s experience of both beauty and pain in America.