(Eldzier Cortor; Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art and Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison; George F. Harding Collection)

Eldzier Cortor (b. 1916)

The Room No. VI, 1948

On view at the Art Institute of Chicago

Great Works, In Focus

Interior design

Eldzier Cortor painted Black poverty with beauty and great invention

Eldzier Cortor’s “The Room No. VI,” 1948.On view at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Eldzier Cortor; Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art and Mr. and Mrs. Carter H. Harrison; George F. Harding Collection)

He was born in Richmond, but Eldzier Cortor grew up on the South Side of Chicago. And it’s in that city’s great Art Institute that you can find “The Room No. VI,” his 1948 painting in oil and gesso on Masonite.

Cortor died in 2015, just shy of his 100th birthday. “The Room No. VI,” he explained, shows “the overcrowded condition of people who are obliged to carry out their daily activities in the confines of the same four walls in a condition of utmost poverty.”

The description is helpful — Cortor wanted to show real African American lives — but slightly misleading. After all, no one here is carrying out any activities. They’re asleep.

It’s a hot night. Four figures lie on a bed. Ignoring conventional perspective, Cortor has pressed the mattress up against the picture plane, so the recumbent figures appear upright. Because they sleep head to toe, one child, limbs akimbo, seems to tumble from above, like an angel cast from heaven.

The picture has a pinboard flatness, against which all the painting’s other elements jostle. Among the lithe, sleeping bodies, taut verticals prevail. But a diagonal runs up through the two central figures’ jackknifed thighs, extending into the undulating edge of the sheet, up through the floorboards to the upside-down image of a blond woman on the cover of a pulp magazine and a plump baby doll (also White).

Cortor’s colors give the picture its jewel-like loveliness: strong primaries at the edges; brown skin against soft pastels within. He enjoyed trompe l’oeil effects: the two central figures’ glistening hair sticks out, literally, from the picture’s surface, as do areas of impasto on the right, such as the white bottle, which sits atop loose sheets of newspaper. Cortor was an avid reader of the Chicago Defender. He said his painting may have been linked in his mind with the cramped interiors described in Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son.”

When Cortor made “Room No. VI,” in 1948, one style of painting dominated discussions of contemporary art: large-scale abstraction. Cortor was interested in abstraction. But he wanted to paint his own people — to make their lives visible.

As a student at the school of the Art Institute, he had spent long hours with the museum’s early modernist collection and with the African sculpture at Chicago’s Field Museum. African art, he said, was “the most important influence in all my work.” It taught him possibilities for representing Black bodies and Black experience, and about the expressive possibilities of distortion, patterning, texture and collage.

Employed in 1940 by the Works Progress Administration, Cortor was asked to depict scenes of “African American social life in the slums of Chicago’s South Side.” He took to the assignment with gusto, and made it a life mission. He brought to it a special perspective after spending the final two years of World War II studying and painting the Gullah people, on the South Islands, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.

The Gullah were descendants of enslaved people (mainly from Sierra Leone) and Native Americans. Isolated from the mainland, they had preserved much of their distinctive, hybrid culture and cuisine. Cortor’s eyes were opened, his vision expanded.

When he painted “Room No. VI,” he was drawing on all these influences. The result is a thing of beauty: a dense bouquet of visual cunning, tinged with sobriety, acute social awareness and a fug of loving tenderness.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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