Art History



Degree Name

Master of Arts in Art History (M.A.)

Type of Paper/Work

Qualifying paper


Craig Eliason

Second Advisor

Elizabeth Kindall

Third Advisor

Amy M. Nygaard Mickelson


Charles White revisited depictions of abolitionist Harriet Tubman throughout his
career. While most African American artists in the twentieth century depicted Harriet
Tubman almost exclusively as an active freedom fighter, White positioned her as a
spiritual, visionary leader. White’s approach can be understood as both a response to
leftist art critiques that encouraged realistic, legible figures and an integration of his
modernist inclinations that were most overt in his 1940s work. Rather than focusing on
Tubman’s outward accomplishments, such as freeing dozens to hundreds of slaves, White most often connected her story to that of Moses through iconography that was atypical for depictions of Tubman. He also highlighted her inner spirit and strength rather than a militant and physical strength. In the early 1950s, White shifted his work from angular and exaggerated to realistic and legible; this was to accommodate the Leftist mandates of strict social realism and to be more visually accessible to a working-class audience. However, White held on to some of his experimental and modernist tendencies from his earlier work and they reemerged by way of conceptual ambiguity, especially in his later work on Tubman. Representations of Tubman by White, with their ambiguous meaning, continue to resonate with audiences to this day. This paper aims to contextualize Harriet Tubman’s iconicity and legacy through artist depictions in the twentieth century, and more specifically through the works of Charles White by showing the divergent approach he took in portraying Tubman as a visionary leader.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.