Charles Sebree was born in 1914 in Madisonville, Kentucky. His family’s move, in 1926, to Chicago availed Sebree to a wide range of artistic influences. While studying at the Chicago Art Institute and the Chicago School of Design, Mr. Sebree was exposed to both the conventional and the avant garde. Sebree was influenced by The Blue Rider Group (Der Blaue Reiter) and The Bridge Group (Die Brucke). Both these styles represent elements of the Expressionism movement, where the “truth” or “spiritual essence” of a subject is revealed through form and color not realistic images.
During his college years, Sebree broadened his artistic horizons and joined the Cube Theater Club, where he met the noted dancer and anthropologist, Katherine Dunham, who eventually became an influential force in Sebree's life. Sebree designed sets and costumes for Dunham’s dance company, and, for a short time, participated in her company as a dancer. There he met Alain Locke, who would later become Sebree's mentor and confidante. Locke, who thought highly of Sebree's work, included him in his seminal book, The Negro in Art. Locke introduced Sebree to Countee Cullen, who hired him to illustrate his children's book, The Lost Zoo.
Between 1936 and 1938 Sebree worked for the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). During this time Sebree lived in a diverse and integrated artistic and intellectual environment, participating in both the black Renaissance movement and the white bohemian art scene. Sebree was also a member of the South Side Community Arts Center, whose vitality has been compared to that of the Harlem Renaissance. He and many of his fellow artists, like Langston Hughes and Charles Pratt, were becoming well known. However, Sebree’s burgeoning career was briefly interrupted when he was drafted in the war. While stationed, he produced plays with friend Owen Dodson.
After the war, Sebree moved to New York where he once again enjoyed a tight knit community of artists just like he did in Chicago. These artists include Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn. Sebree was inspired and energized by his life in the midst of a group of extraordinary artists. He again branched out and began to write plays. Mrs. Patterson, a play about a young southern black girl whose desire is to be rich and white, opened in Detroit and featured Eartha Kitt.
Despite his attachment to particular groups and places, Sebree had a nomadic streak, moving frequently and often in a rush. This lifestyle may explain his predilection, in his art, toward small formats and subjects reminiscent of a nomadic existence.
Sebree lived the rest of his years in Washington, D.C., where he died from cancer in 1985. Eluding categorization, Sebree's paintings, which reveal influence of Picasso, Mogdiliani, Kandinsky, and Russian icons, exude an extraordinary iconic, archetypal power. Charles Sebree’s best known works are his paintings of harlequins and saltimbanques, giving these subjects his “signature” soulful and communicative eyes. Unfortunately, during Sebree's lifetime, his art did not receive the recognition it deserved.
419A Convent Avenue New York, NY 10019
212-368-9635 | Join Us | Hours Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-6pm. Essie Greeen Galleries 2012