Sunday, May 13, 2012

Elizabeth Catlett: Three Women Of America (1990)

Elizabeth Catlett:
Three Women of America (1990) 

In 1990 artist Elizabeth Catlett created this beautiful painting entitled Three Women of America. The painting is of 3 women from different ethnic backgrounds overlapping one another. It appears that the women’s race-ethnicities are white, black and Latina. The white woman is on the left and the Latina woman is on the right, and they are blending together into the black woman, who is in the middle. The white woman has very pale skin and blonde hair, the Latina woman has tan skin and dark brown hair and the black woman has brown skin and dark brown almost black hair. Each of the women shares the same eye color, the white woman’s right eye makes the black woman’s left eye and the Latinas woman’s right eye makes the black woman’s left eye. In addition to the eyes of the women over lapping the skin tones do as well; the white woman’s pale skin blends with the black woman’s dark skin to make a dark tan color and the Latina woman’s tan skin overlaps with the black woman’s dark skin to make another shade of dark tan, which is slightly different than the white and black woman’s mixture. In addition to the women’s faces over lapping their arms are intertwined as they are holding one another. Although each of the women have very stern faces the colors in the painting are also very vibrant; the women are wearing multi-colored shirts each with a different pattern or design. The border and the background are simple and do not distract from the main subjects of her painting.
Joanna Frueh said in her piece “The Body Through Women’s Eyes”,  “[Since the 1970s] the body has been an image, an idea and an issue of continuing significance in women’s art”(190). And she goes on to say that “feminist artists affirmed not only the authenticity of their own experiences that informed their art, but also the beauty and sexual and spiritual power of the female body as correctives to idealizations”(190). Although Elizabeth Catlett’s painting is not an attempt to reclaim female sexuality it is still a feminist piece and makes a statement about women and race. Catlett’s authenticity is also affirmed because she too draws from personal experience in order to create her artwork. Catlett, who is African American and was born in 1915 to a mother and father whom were both teachers and to grandparents who were victims of slavery, has endured a great amount of struggle throughout her life and artist career (RoGallery, online). Jeff Harrison in “The Art of Elizabeth Catlett” wrote, “A readily recognized element is Catlett’s focus on the feminine strength, given birth through her own experience and endurance”(3). These experiences that Catlett has endured helped legitimize and strengthen her artist pieces.
Like Frueh says about feminist artists, Elizabeth Catlett uses women’s bodies to make a statement, but instead of a statement about sexuality she makes one about race. Catlett created this piece in 1900, which was around the time the third wave feminist movement, was underway. Unlike the previous first and second wave movements the third wave feminist movement incorporated women of color. As Jennifer Robinson explains, when talking about the third wave movement, “scholars in women’s studies and those involved in the feminist movement continue to write about the correlations between various forms of oppression, including sexism, classism, racism, homophobia, war, and globalization”(1). Third wave feminism expanded its ideals and opened up to the empowerment of women in different classes and races. Now that women of color had become prominent in the fight for women’s right Catlett was able to build off of the movement to create this feminist piece of art. As Harrison has stated “Throughout her career, Catlett has been a political progressive committed to improving the lives of African-American and Mexican women, and she has often used her art explicitly to advance their cause”(2). Three Women of America can be seen, through my eyes, as a unity of women from different races coming together to create a strong alliance. As you can see in the painting, these women from different races are blending together into an interconnected woman. The woman who lies in the middle is black and I believe Catlett placed her in the middle very purposefully, because the black race is the one the who has endured the most discrimination and hardship in American History to date; Harrison says, “accounts of slavery and abuse of blacks in America recounted by her grandmother and tales of her social-worker mother positioned Catlett’s sense of self and her determination to give voice to black women through her art”(6). The image could portray that women from different races are more alike than they believe, they are all of the same gender and they should not let race separate them from one another. If all women can break down the barrier of race, which may be the reason why women cannot completely come together to fight alongside each other for rights, the women’s movement  would become unstoppable. The painting is entitled Three Women of America but essentially it portrays three women of different races blending together to become a unified woman. Jeff Harrison confirms that “Catlett creates psychologically perceptive portraits of individuals whose lives she believes have been torn apart by race, class, and governments of the North American continent” (3). Catlett brings together these women of different races who have been separated for so long.  The colors Catlett chose also says a lot about the tone of the painting. Although the faces of the women are very serious, each of the women is wearing a very bright and colored shirt, each with their own distinct pattern. Bright colors normally portray happiness; Catlett is celebrating the coming together of women of different races. These vibrant colors portray to observers that this is a joyous piece of art and the ideas that lie within the painting should be celebrated.
In Elizabeth Catlett’s painting the women are blending together to create one woman and in that process the colors of their skin blend together as well. This idea of shades of skin immediately brings me back to my group’s final project, in which focused on the construction of beauty through print advertisements. During our research we found that companies and advertisers had a strong preference for women of lighter skin tones. Within our discussion during class, when we presented our blog, we began to talk about why this may be true. We then got on the idea of ranking women’s social standing based on their skin tones among different races and ethnicities. The group who focused on Bollywood gave us some insight into why the darkness of skin played a role in the social ranking in the Indian society due to the caste system. But in our class readings we also so saw examples of ranking women of color based on their skin tone. In “How the Gracias Girl Lost Their Accents” by Julia Alvarez, the social standings of the maids portrays how the darkness of your skin may determine how you are socially ranked or seen. One of the maids Chucha is described as “super wrinkled and Haitian blue-black, not Dominican café-con-leche black”(218). Because Chucha was a darker shade of black, which classifies you as being Haitian instead of Dominican, she is viewed differently and maintains a lower ranking in the social system. In Catlett’s piece the women are blending together to become one and in this process of blending the women’s skin tones are also mixed together. If women can set aside the difference of race and see more than just skin color the feminist movement could be a lot stronger. Catlett’s idea of all these women blending together is the idea that race should not be another barrier, in addition to gender, that can hold them back from achieving their deserved rights as women. Blending is more than just coming together as different races it is about coming together to create one unified group, where skin color is not a factor, in the fight for women’s rights.
In addition to paintings Elizabeth Catlett is also well known for many of her sculptures;“Whether working in wood, stone, bronze, or clay, Catlett reveals an extraordinary technical virtuosity, a natural ability to meld her curving female forms with the grain, whorls, color, or luster of her chosen medium. The beauty of her subjects is matched by the beauty she reveals in her sculptural materials” (Harrison 2). Like her piece Mother and Child from 1939, which is a wooden sculpture of an African American woman holding her young child. Catlett as has a variety of paintings, which too mostly center around the African American race with a focus on women. As the Jacob Lawrence collection explains, “Elizabeth Catlett's themes include the mother and child, suffering due to racial injustice, the bodily and facial beauty of African Americans, especially of the African-American woman, social and/or political protest, love, dignity and essential human vitality” (1). Catlett is very passionate about her work and her themes and ideas are clear throughout her variety of artist pieces.
I think that Elizabeth Catlett’s Three Women of America is an amazing piece of art with a strong message. The complex ideas within this painting can speak to variety of people differently. What one may see in it, another may not. Elizabeth Catlett’s ability to incorporate so much into one painting is amazing. Before taking Women’s Studies I wouldn’t have thought much of this painting or what meanings that lie within it. But now when I look at it, I can see traces of the themes such as gender, feminism and race. I very much enjoy this painting and the ideas that follow it that is why I chose to analyze it. In addition to liking the themes that surround the painting I also enjoy the colors and details of the painting. I love that each woman has her own individual patterned shirt to help differentiate herself from the other two women; it also helps you see where one woman ends and the other begins. I also like the plain background and border of the painting, it is enough to make it pleasing to the eye but not enough to take away from the main subjects. All of the individual details of the painting work together to create one beautiful piece of art.

 Author: Kathleen M.

Work Cited

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algoquin Books Of Chapel Hill, 2010. Print.

"Elizabeth Catlett- Biography". Elizabeth Catlett. RoGallery. Web. 12 May 2012. <>.

Frueh, Joanna. "The Body Through Women's Eyes" in The Power of Feminist Art, p. 190-207

Harrison, Jeff. "Elizabeth Catlett." Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. Web. <>.

Lawrence, Jacob. "Elizabeth Catlett". Jacob Lawrence Collection. Web. <>

Robinson, Jennifer. "Femminism and the Third Wave"Web. 2007. <>

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