Profile: Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015)

Eldzier Cortor was an African-American artist and printmaker. His work typically features elongated nude figures in intimate settings, influenced by both traditional African art and European surrealism.

Early life

Cortor was born in Richmond, Virginia, to John and Ophelia Cortor. His family moved to Chicago when Cortor was about a year old, eventually settling in that city’s South Side, where Cortor attended Englewood High School. Fellow students at Englewood included the African-American artists Charles Wilbert White and Margaret Burroughs. Cortor attended the Art Institute of Chicago, along with artist Gus Nall, gaining a degree in 1936. In 1940 he worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), where he drew scenes of Depression-era Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. In 1949, he studied in Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and taught at the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince from 1949 to 1951.

Growing up, he was an avid reader of the Chicago Defender, which was a popular newspaper that focused on celebrating the successes of African Americans. This is ultimately translated into the main thematic focus of his artwork, which is to portray African Americans in a positive light and highlight their beauty and achievements. For the majority of his career, Cortor played with different representations of the black female figure and how to represent her strength and beauty. Cortor saw the black female figure as being the essential spirit of the black race. His style is often described as experimenting with black physiognomy while infusing it with surrealism.


In 1944 and in 1945, Cortor won two fellowships that allowed him to travel to the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The Gullah people resided in these islands and Cortor was particularly interested in this area because of how untouched their culture had been by white people and American culture. In this regard, Cortor decided to explore a different African diasporic culture that had more African elements prevalent overall in their culture. He spent two years living on the islands and immersed himself into the Gullah culture. “As a Negro artist I have been particularly concerned with painting Negro racial types not only as such but in connection with particular problems in color, design and composition…I have felt an especial interest in…painting Negroes whose cultural traditions had been only slightly influenced by whites…I should like to…paint a series of pictures which would reflect the particular physical and racial characteristics of the Gullahs.”


Cortor died on November 26, 2015, at the age of 99.

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