Selma Hortense Burke



Selma Hortense Burke (December 31, 1900 – August 29, 1995) was an American sculptor. She educated others in her passion of art, she founded two art schools, one in New York City and another in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her art is on display in Washington D.C and North Carolina. Burke is best known for her bas relief of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.



Born on December 31, 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina to a farming family. Her father was an AME Church Zion Minister, she demonstrated an early interest in art, but her mother thought she should pursue a more marketable vocation.[1][2] She graduated from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh in 1924.[3] She then moved to Harlem, where she found work as a nurse.

Burke was caught up in the Harlem Renaissance with Claude McKay and, influenced by the Harlem Community Art Center, began to chase her dream of being an artist.[4] Burke continued sculpting in her free time. The Rosenwald (1935) and the Boehler (1936) Foundation Grants[5] in the late 1930s enabled her to study sculpture in Vienna and with Aristide Maillol in Paris, culminating in her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University in 1941.[6]

Burke was chosen to sculpt a portrait of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt honoring the Four Freedoms.[7] Completed in 1944, the 3.5-by-2.5-foot plaque was unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today.[8] Some have suggested that the plaque may have served as John R. Sinnock‘s inspiration for his obverse design on the Roosevelt dime.[8] Sinnock, however, denied this vehemently, claiming the design for the dime was based on earlier medals he had sculpted in 1933 and 1934 as well as photographs of FDR.[9][10]

She was committed to teaching art to others; to that end she established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[11] Open from 1968 to 1981, the center “was an original art center that played an integral role in the Pittsburgh art community,” offering courses ranging from studio workshops to puppetry classes.[8] Burke also taught art in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for 17 years.

Retirement and death

Burke retired to New Hope, Pennsylvania and died in 1995, at age 94.[12]


Burke is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.[6] She received her second doctorate degree at Livingston College in 1970, she also received 8 honorary doctorate degrees for her life time efforts.[5] In 1979 President Jimmy Carter honored Burke at the White House for her contributions to visual arts, praising her as a “shining beacon” for aspiring artists.

Selected work

Other of her works can be found at:[13]

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