Charcoal on Strathmore watercolor board, 1938. 763x552 mm; 30x21 3/4 inches. Signed and dated in pencil, lower right.
Provenance: the artist; private collection; the collection of George and Joyce Wein, New York.
Illustrated: Andrea D. Barnwell, Charles White. The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art: Volume I, plate 6, p. 21.
One of Charles White's earliest WPA drawings to come to auction, John Brown is also one of his largest surviving pre-1940 drawings. This bold rendering of the infamous Abolitionist leader holding the end of a rifle is a study for the now lost 1940-41 Federal Art Project mural, Technique to Serve the Struggle.
Having just graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago, Charles White was only 20 when he joined the easel division of the Chicago WPA in April, 1938. White typically drew studies of every figure for each mural project. The tempera mural was an ambitious two-panel project (13x20 feet each) for the Cleveland Branch of the Chicago Public Library. The panels were divided by a doorway into Northern and Southern scenes, crowded with figures that embody the African-American struggle. In Rethinking Social Realism, illustrated with an archival photograph of the mural, Professor Stacy I. Morgan of the University of Alabama is one of the few historians to document these murals and analyze the progessive nature of White's political message.
We have found only two other known studies for this mural project--a drawing of the guitar player and a painting, both in private collections. Sidney Finkelstein, in his Charles White Ein Künstler Amerikas, includes a photograph of Charles White painting the John Brown figure in the left-hand panel. White was also photographed by fellow Chicago WPA artist Gordon Parks in front of the John Brown figure in the mural.
This bold drawing also shows the influence of the Mexican Muralists of whom White first became aware during these early WPA days. After his 1942 Rosenwald scholarship to study in Mexico, where he studied with the muralist David Siqueiros, Charles White later returned to this subject with his John Brown lithograph in 1949.