Eldzier Cortor’s paintings preserved African tradition

Herb Boyd | 12/3/2015, 1:25 p.m.
The legacy of artist Eldzier Cortor.
Eldzier Cortor

A few weeks ago in this space, the Harlem Renaissance painter Archibald Motley was featured. One of his colleagues during this dynamic artistic phase was Eldzier Cortor, who expressed a similar style, particularly in the use of an array of bright colors and beautiful Black women. Cortor came to mind again this week when it was reported that he had died Thursday, Nov. 26 at his son’s home in Seaford, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 99.

Born in Richmond, Va., Jan. 10, 1916, Cortor moved with his family to Chicago when he was very young. In fact, their first home in the city was near the Motley residence on the west side, but because of the Great Depression and other pressing economic conditions, they soon settled on the South Side.

Like Motley, he attended Englewood High School, where other notable artists Charles Sebree, Charles White and Margaret Burroughs were classmates. Motley was born in 1891, so they were separated by a quarter of a century in age. Even so, Cortor continued on a similar artistic path blazed by Motley by attending the Art Institute of Chicago in 1936. There, he was able to improve on some of the earlier lessons inspired by the comic strips in the Chicago Defender. But it was during a class trip to the Field Museum that Cortor encountered African sculpture that would play a major role in his style and visual sensibilities.

The contours and elegant shapes of the sculpture impressed him deeply, though it would take several years before he truly gained command of the form and integrated it into his creations. At the Institute of Design and under the tutelage of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Cortor continued to refine his artistic conception, forging his own perspective while working in a variety of formats. Along with his studies, he found work, like so many artists of the day, with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. By 1941, with funds from the WPA, he co-founded the South Side Community Art Center on South Michigan Avenue.

Besides his immersion in painting, Cortor was also a printmaker—a vocation he began while studying the form at Columbia University in 1942.

In 1945, he was the recipient of a Rosenwald Foundation grant, which allowed him to pursue studies among the Gullah people in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas. Life among the Gullah, who had retained many of their African cultural traits and traditions, including the handicrafts, was a valuable extension of the art he had seen in the museums. Most engaging were the women, and his depiction of them was soon a dominant part of this production.

One of his pieces, a semi-nude painting of a Black female, caught the eye of an editor at Life magazine, and it was published in 1946. Three years later, Cortor was off on another jaunt, this time to the Caribbean, underwritten by a Guggenheim Fellowship. Trips to Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti were particularly fruitful, and he also taught for a while at Haiti’s Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince. There were opportunities to expand the African heritage that had begun among the Gullah. The retention of African material and artifacts was even more abundant, and Cortor used many of these images to embellish his always vivid imagination.