The Four Faces of Man, 1958
Charles Wilbert White, American, 1918–1979
Graphite, charcoal, and crayon on paper
Sheet: 21 1/8 × 33 7/8 in. (53.6 × 86.1 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the African American Art Advisory Association
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Media Effects/Theme Affects
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Born in Chicago in 1918, Charles W. White used his paintings and drawings to explore themes from African-American history. During the late 1930s, he was among the first artists to depict African-American heroes and the struggles of the African-American people. White’s extensive education included the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York, and Taller de Gráphica (Graphic Art Workshop) in Mexico. An artist of considerable renown, he also taught at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago and at Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. White served on the executive boards of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Conference of Artists, and the National Center of Afro-American Artists. His work has been exhibited in dozens of exhibitions and is included in the permanent collections of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Many of White’s history scenes were created as large-scale murals. However, after his health began to fail, the artist moved to southern California and turned his attention toward drawing and printmaking. He continued to focus on the themes of struggle, courage, and triumph over adversity, particularly with regard to African-American history. White’s large charcoal and ink-wash drawings on paper, such as The Four Faces of Man, are deeply rooted in his previous work as a muralist, but these later works also present a boldness and intimacy not present in the artist’s mural paintings.
The four male figures in The Four Faces of Man provide a generational review of the African- American male, conveying a sense of dignity, suffering, quiet success, and longing. The figures embody the defiant spirit of the African-American people in the face of hardship and struggle.
Although Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Conceptualism were the critically extolled art styles of the mid-20th century, White believed that art should communicate to the viewer in a clearer and more direct way. He chose to focus on realism and the figure for his propagandist art, intending his message to be accessible to a broad spectrum of society. White’s work encapsulates the pain and suffering of the African-American people while celebrating their ability to overcome and prevail in the midst of racism, bigotry, and struggle.
- What mood do these faces have? Consider them together and as a group. Are they all feeling the same emotions?
- What visual cues point to these men’s ages?
- Are these the same men, or different men?
- Why do you think White drew them without a background, without a way to identify where they are?
- Which parts of this image could you say are hopeful? Which are not hopeful? What about them makes you say so?
- One of the men is depicted with a hand as well as a head. Why do you think this is so? What does the hand tell you about the man as a person?
- How would this image be different if it was four full-body portraits?
• Charcoal has a highly distinctive effect, tending to create a very soft and almost atmospheric finished drawing. Explore various media—such as pencil, oil pastel, and pen and ink— to compare the effects of each. How does White’s choice of charcoal add to the effect of this image?
• Consider the themes of White’s work, such as struggle, courage, and triumph over adversity. What other artists, African-American or otherwise, explore these themes in their work? Explain.
• Compare this work to Standing Mother and Child, 1978, a sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett. What characteristics does Catlett emphasize to define the African-American woman? What does White emphasize to define the African-American man?
Subject Matter Connection
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The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider