John Biggers was an African-American social realist artist born in Gastonia, North Carolina. His paintings and drawings, which often evoke themes of social and economic inequality, display the influence that European Modernism, American Realism, and the Mexican Muralists had on his work. After serving in the segregated Navy during the early 1940s, Biggers created haunting scenes of poverty in the urban north and rural south before transitioning to abstract geometric depictions of life in the south later in his career.
Mother and Children exhibits Bigger’s early style when his artistic production was concerned with figures passed over by the post-war economic recovery. His despondent imagery from this period is highlighted by the juxtaposition of the female figure’s large, life-giving hands with the older boy’s wasting frame. The claustrophobic quality of the room, closed in around the three figures, serves as a visual metaphor for their confined opportunities in life. This early contè crayon drawing is a strong addition to WCMA’s collection of American art and the first major social realist work by an African-American artist before 1950.