Sharecropper is arguably the best-known image by sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012), who was one of the most admired African American artists of the twentieth century. She devoted her career to creating works that addressed issues of social justice—especially the struggles of African American women—and aimed to reach a broad, multiracial audience.
Catlett's social convictions stemmed from personal experience. After growing up hearing her grandmother's stories of slavery, she faced prejudice herself when denied admission to the Carnegie Institute of Technology solely on the basis of race. Undeterred, she went on to receive a B.A. from historically black Howard University in 1935, and an MFA in sculpture from the University of Iowa in 1940. There, one of her professors, the regionalist painter Grant Wood, influenced her future direction by encouraging her to pursue subjects that were familiar and personally significant, such as her community and heritage. Catlett went on to became an influential instructor herself through teaching positions at Dillard University in New Orleans and progressive community art centers on Chicago's South Side and in Harlem, New York.
In 1946, Catlett, who had long admired the work of the Mexican muralists, applied for and received a fellowship that enabled her to travel to Mexico City. There she found an artistic home at the printmaking collective Taller de Gráphica Popular, which produced primarily leftist posters, broadsides, and woodcuts. Catlett enjoyed the workshop's collaborative spirit and, like several other African American artists, found the social environment in Mexico more welcoming to artists of color than it was in the United States. She decided to stay, and she died there last April at the age of ninety-six.
The first work by Catlett to enter the museum's collection, Sharecropper possesses both graphic and emotional power. In it she elevates a field worker from the American South to a symbol of dignity in the midst of hardship. The print's large scale, tight cropping, and low vantage point intensify the figure's monumental presence and convey a sense of her internal fortitude. Catlett's chiseled treatment of the woman's taut face suggests her physical strength but also reminds us that Catlett trained as a sculptor; also sculptural are the precise, varied hatchings in the block that create the image's remarkable range of patterns, textures, and lighting effects. Particularly artful is her rendering of the woven straw hat, with its concentric, halo-like bands that encircle the figure's head, drawing further attention to her face. The sharecropper appears self-possessed, yet worn from her labors. The large safety pin that fastens her plain shirt is perhaps the most telling emblem of her modest circumstances.
Catlett first created Sharecropper's key block—here inked in black—in 1952, and then published it as Cosechadora de algodón (Cotton Picker) in the journal Artes de México in 1957. She produced color impressions, which accentuated the subject's race, beginning in 1968, in the midst of the civil rights movement. We can imagine how this image of an oppressed, yet resilient African American woman would have had particular impact during that era. Its iconic power has not lessened over time.