Eldzier Cortor papers, circa 1930s-2009, bulk, 1972-2009

A Finding Aid to the Eldzier Cortor papers, circa 1930s-2009, bulk 1972-2009 in the Archives of American Art, by Justin Brancato

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Biographical Information

Eldzier Cortor (1916- ) is a painter and printmaker in Chicago, Ill. and New York, N.Y.

Cortor spent his professional career as a painter and printmaker in Chicago and New York. He was born in Richmond, Virginia to John and Ophelia Cortor. In 1917, a year after his birth, they moved to Chicago along with countless other African-Americans as part of the Great Migration. Cortor was interested in art from an early age, citing Leslie Roger's comic strip "Bungleton Green" as his favorite. He would copy the Chicago Defender strips in near identical detail. However, Cortor's father did not support his son's interest in art, and soon Eldzier had dropped out of school.

In 1936, Cortor took evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago prior to enrolling full time. Kathleen Blackshear, an instructor at the institute, recommended Cortor for employment at the Works Project Administration in 1940. It was under Blackshear's guidance that Cortor was introduced to African Art. Cortor has stated that the Works Project Administration made it possible for "me to make a series of genre paintings depicting the ordinary aspects of daily life of the Black family on the Chicago Southside." The depiction of African-Americans became the defining subject of Cortor's career, specifically the portrayal of the African-American woman, which he commonly represented nude in paintings and prints. "She conveys a feeling of eternity," said Cortor. "The continuance of life. The Black woman represents the Black race. She is the Black spirit."

In 1941, with funding by the Works Project Administration, Cortor helped found the South Side Community Arts Center in Chicago. Over the next few years he would receive two Rosenwald Fellowships, which allowed him to travel to the Sea Islands of Georgia. Afterward, Cortor transitioned to New York, and in 1946 Life magazine published his artwork of a nude African-American female. In 1949 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, which provided the opportunity to travel to Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti. He settled in Port-au-Prince where he taught art for two years.

Cortor married Sophia Schmidt on August 20, 1951, and they subsequently had four children: Michael, Mercedes, Stephen and Miriam. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Studio Museum of Harlem and National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston. Notable exhibitions include Three Masters: Eldzier Cortor, Hughie Lee-Smith and Archibald John Motley, Jr. at Kenkeleba House in 1988; Southern Gate: African American Paintings from the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution at Duke University Museum of Art, 1999; Eldzier Cortor: Master Printmaker at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, 2002; and Black Spirit: Work on Paper by Eldzier Cortor at the Indiana University Art Museum, 2006.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The papers of painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor measure 1.1 linear feet and date from circa 1930s-2009, with the bulk of the papers dating from 1972-2009. The papers contain biographical material, letters, subject files, exhibition files, writings, printed material, photographs, and artwork documenting Cortor's career as an artist.

Biographical material consists of awards from Carnegie Institute in 1947, Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977, and 3rd International Biennial Print Exhibit: 1987 ROC. Letters are from Cortor's family, friends and associates. Included are letters from Cortor's mother Ophelia, and his wife and sister. Those from his friends and associates include Acklyn Lynch, Leontine Collier, Violetta Harrigan, Halima Taha, David C. Driskell, and Carol Anderson. Letters from art institutions include Sylvan Cole Gallery, Anderson Gallery, and Kenkeleba House.

Subject files include correspondence, contracts, loan forms, purchase agreements, consignments and other documents, exhibition checklists, newspaper clippings, exhibition announcements, and photocopied images of photographs and artworks. This material relates to institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, David Anderson Gallery, Brooklyn Museum, Cosby Collection of Fine Arts, National Afro-American Museum, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Other notable subject files include Lester B. Bridaham and the Public School Mural Project.

Exhibition files consist of correspondence, printed material, newspaper and magazine clippings, statistics, photographs, inventories, exhibition announcements, writings, press releases, and loan agreements. The series is organized by institution, including Indiana University, Kenkeleba House, and Museum of Contemporary Art.

Writings consist of essays and articles about Eldzier Cortor. Printed material includes articles and clippings from publications and books, exhibition announcements and catalogs. Artwork includes ink and watercolor sketches from Cortor's student days at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photographs, undated, are primarily of Cortor's paintings, prints and drawings, as well as a several photographs of Cortor himself.

Arrangement and Series Description

The Eldzier Cortor papers are organized into 8 series.

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following terms:

Subjects:

  • Bridaham, Lester Burbank
  • National African American Museum (U.S.)
  • Art Institute of Chicago--Student
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Indiana University
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, Ill.)
  • Kenkeleba House
  • Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
  • Studio Museum in Harlem

Subjects-Topical:

  • Printmakers--Illinois--Chicago
  • Printmakers--New York (State)--New York
  • African American painters--Illinois--Chicago
  • African American painters--New York (State)--New York
  • Art--Economic aspects

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs
  • Sketches
  • Essays
  • Articles
  • Awards

Names:

  • Driskell, David C.
  • Lynch, Acklyn
  • Collier, Leontine L.
  • Harrigan, Violetta C., 1941-
  • Taha, Halima
  • Anderson Gallery
  • Sylvan Cole Gallery

Provenance

The papers were donated to the Archives of American Art in 2009 by Eldzier Cortor.

Separated and Related Materials

Archives of American Art microfilm reel N70-47 contains biographical material, correspondence, printed material, exhibition data, exhibition announcements and catalogs, photographs and sketchbooks that were loaned for filming by Eldzier Cortor in 1970. The only microfilmed items included in his 2009 gift are three photographs.

How the Collection was Processed

The papers were processed by Justin Brancato in March, 2010.


How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The Eldzier Cortor papers are open for research. Use requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The Eldzier Cortor papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

How to Cite this Collection

Eldzier Cortor papers, circa 1930s-2009, bulk 1972-1009. Archives of America Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical Material, 1947-1987
(Box 1; 1 folder)

Biographical material consists of awards and certificates. Among them is an honorable mention in the exhibition Painting in the United States from the Carnegie Institute in 1947, a certificate of recognition at the Festival of Arts and Culture in 1977, and a Certificate of Eligibility for Final Competition at the 3rd International Biennial Print Exhibit: 1987 ROC. There are two letters from the Carnegie Institute concerning his honorable mention.

Box Folder
1 1 Awards, 1947-1987

Series 2: Letters, 1977-2005
(Box 1; 2 folders)

Letters are from Cortor's family, friends and associates. There are letters from Cortor's mother Ophelia, his wife and sister; and material relating to Ophelia including a newspaper clipping, a remembrance and a certificate from Saint Peter's Church in New York City. Letters from friends and associates are both personal and professional in nature. Correspondents include Acklyn Lynch, noted scholar, writer and professor of Africana Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; David C. Driskell, artist and renowned scholar of African-American Art; Carol Anderson, associate professor of African-American Studies at Emory University; and writers Leontine Collier, Violetta Harrigan, and Halima Taha. Letters from art institutions include Sylvan Cole Gallery, Anderson Gallery, and Kenkeleba House. Also found here are seven photographs of Cortor and artist Bob Blackburn, among others, at the National Arts Club in New York in 1999.

Researchers should note that additional correspondence can be found within Corter's Subject Files (Series 3) and Exhibition Files (Series 4).

Box Folder
1 2 Family, 1978-2001, undated
1 3 Friends and Associates, 1977-2005, undated

Series 3: Subject Files, 1960-2009
(Box 1-2; 0.4 linear feet)

Subject files include correspondence, contracts, loan forms, purchase agreements, consignments and other documents, exhibition checklists, newspaper clippings, exhibition announcements, and photocopied images of photographs and artworks. This material relates to institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, David Anderson Gallery, Brooklyn Museum, Cosby Collection of Fine Arts, National Afro-American Museum, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Files include correspondence with appraiser Lester B. Bridaham, author Harry Henderson, collectors Harmon and Harriet Kelley, and American Jazz promoter and producer George T. Wein. The National Arts Club file contains one letter from Maya Angelou to Cortor.

Also of note are a completed Brooklyn Museum questionnaire by Cortor about his painting Southern Landscape; correspondence and documentation regarding paintings purchased by Bill Cosby; photocopies of drawings and a small color study of a mural produced for the Public School Mural Project; and a photograph and two contact sheets of Cortor's visit to the National Museum of American Art with Harry Rand, Curator of Painting and Sculpture, in the Smithsonian Institution file.

Box Folder
1 4 The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992-2003
1 5 David Anderson Gallery, 1972-1991
1 6 Hans Bhalla, 1970-1971
1 7 Lester B. Bridaham, 1979-1993
1 8 George Wein, 1997-2008
1 9 Brooklyn Museum, 2006-2008
1 10 The Cosby Collection of Fine Arts, 1987-2001
1 11 Fakes, 1987-2007, undated
1 12 Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists, 1981-1994
1 13 Harmon and Harriet Kelley, 1993-2003, undated
1 14 Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 1995-1996
1 15 National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, 1987-1999
1 16 National Arts Club, 1994
1 17 Pratt Institute, 1972-1995
1 18 Public School Mural Project, 1972-1976
(Oversized material housed in OV 2)
1 19 Publishing 1960-2005, undated
1 20 Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 1987-2007, undated
1 21 Schomburg Center, 1998
1 22 Smithsonian Institution, 1985-2003, undated
1 23 St. Louis Art Museum, 2003-2004
1 24 The Studio Museum in Harlem, 1973-2009, undated
Box
OV 2 Public School Mural Project, 1972-1976
(Oversized items from Box 1, Folder 18)

Series 4: Exhibition Files, 1972-2006,
(Box 1; 0.2 linear feet)

Exhibition files consist of correspondence, printed material, newspaper and magazine clippings, statistics, photographs, inventories, exhibition announcements, writings, press releases, and loan agreements. The series is organized by institution, which includes Indiana University, Kenkeleba House, and Museum of Contemporary Art. The folder "Miscellaneous Museums" contains correspondence and exhibition announcements arranged by museum, including: National Center of Afro-American Artists, Studio Museum in Harlem, Portland Art Museum, Katonah Museum of Art, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Box Folder
1 25 Exhibition List, undated
1 26 Indiana University Exhibition, 2004-2006
1 Kenkeleba House
1 27 The Intaglio Prints, 2000, undated
1 28 Three Masters, 1987-1988, undated
1 29 The Unbroken Circle, 1986
1 30 Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996
1 31 Miscellaneous Museums, 1972-1996

Series 5: Writings, 1999-2006,
(Box 1; 0.1 linear feet)

Writings include a short biography of Cortor's life and career, two related essays about Cortor by Jennifer Heusel, an article by Cecile Whiting, and transcribed hand-written excerpts by miscellaneous authors. Also included is a questionnaire completed by Cortor concerning his artistic process, techniques, influences and biography. The essay by Jennifer Heusel, Undressing Invisibility: The Black Female Nude in the Art of Eldzier Cortor was written in 1998 and includes commentary by Paula Giddings. A condensed version of this article was written in 1999 and titled Cultural Dissemblance in Representations of the African American Female Nude: Eldzier Cortor's Southern Gate, 1942-43.

Box Folder
1 32 Biography by Joye Vailes Shepperd, undated
1 33 Essays on Cortor by Jennifer Heusel, 2006
1 34 More Than Meets the Eye: Archibald Motley and Debates on Race in Art by Cecile Whiting, 1999
1 35 Questionnaire by Cortor, undated
1 36 Transcribed Excerts by Miscellaneous Authors, undated

Series 6: Printed Material, 1996-2003
(Box 1; 0.3 linear feet)

Printed material includes articles and clippings from publications and books, exhibition announcements and catalogs. Of particular note is an article from the publication Opportunity, Journal of Negro Life from 1940, about African-American artists living in Chicago. Exhibition announcements include The Evan-Tibbs Collection: A Survey of 20th Century African-American Art, Master Painter, The Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art, and A Conversation with the Collector and Celebration Reception. Exhibition catalogs include catalogs from the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery's ongoing series of exhibitions of African-American art, all of which include works of art by Cortor.

Box Folder
1 37 Articles and Clippings, undated
1 38 Exhibition Announcements, 1999-2002
1 39-41 Exhibition Catalogs, African-American Art 20th Century Masterworks, 1996-2003
(3 folders)

Series 7: Artwork, circa 1930s
(Box 1; 1 folder)

Artwork includes ink and watercolor sketches from Cortor's student days at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Box Folder
1 42 Early Sketches, circa 1930s

Series 8: Photographs, undated
(Box 1; 1 folder; microfilm reel N70-47 and not microfilmed)

This series consists of black and white photographs of Cortor, including one of Cortor with the "fifteenth street gang" at the Henry Booth House in Chicago, and two photographs of Cortor with Harry Rand, curator of Painting and Sculpture at the National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C., 1986. Also included are black and white photographs, color transparencies and slides of Cortor's paintings, prints and drawings.

Box Folder
1 43 Photographs of Cortor, undated
(Reel N70-47, frames 329-331)
1 44 Photographs of Cortor, undated
1 45 Photographs of Artwork, undated
1 46 Transparencies of Artwork, undated
1 47 Slides of Artwork, undated