Dr. Selma Burke – Sculptor


Burke in her studio. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[2]
Sculptor and educator, Selma Hortense Burke, received national recognition for her relief portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was the model for his image on the dime. Committed to teaching art to others, Burke established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City in 1946 and subsequently opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. [1]

Burke’s most famous work, a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that now graces the dime, came about from a competition to sculpt the president for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C. After feeling like she couldn’t capture the likeness of Roosevelt from photographs, Burke wrote the White House and, to her surprise, was granted a sitting with the president.[2] The portrait she created was adapted by the mint and is currently on United States dimes.[3]


dime peice Selma Burke
Plaque of FDR. [2]

Burke founded the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1968 where she continued to introduce art to inner-city youth. She was widely lauded for her engagement in civic organizations and endeavors in the Pittsburgh area.  July 20, 1975 was adopted as Selma Burke Day by former Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania.[4]

Some of Burke’s most notable sculptures include Temptation (1938),  Despair (1951),  Fallen Angel(1958), Mother and Child (1968), and Together (1975).  A nine-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. she completed while in her eighties is on display in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.  She received numerous awards and honors which included three honorary doctorate degrees.  In 1979 Burke was recognized by President Jimmy Carter for her contribution to African American art history.[4]

untitled woman and child by selma burke 1950
Selma Burke, Untitled (Woman and Child), ca. 1950, painted red oak, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John A. Sakal and Terry L. Bengel in honor of Dr. Paul Albert Chew, Founding Director of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 2004.20 [1]
Selma Burke died at ninety-four years of age.  Her sculptures, many of which are on display at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, remind viewers of her legacy to art history.[4]



[1] https://americanart.si.edu/artist/selma-burke-27983 

[2] https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2015/12/31/selma-burke-renowned-fdr-portrait-on-the-dime 

[3] https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burke-selma-hortense-1900-1995/

[4] https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burke-selma-hortense-1900-1995/

Additional Sources:

https://www.spelman.edu/docs/archives-guides/selma-burke-collection.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – Link to Selma Burke Collection – Spelman College PDF

https://digital.library.temple.edu/digital/collection/p15037coll17/id/466/ – Photograph of Selma Burke. During her short marriage to Claude McKay, Burke became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, working with the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artists Guild. In 1940 she opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City. In 1941 Burke earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. She founded the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh and July 20, 1075 was proclaimed Selma Burke Day by Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp. Her “Temptation”, “Despair”, and “Fallen Angel” sculptures are on display throughout the United States, including her Martin Luther King Jr. sculpture at Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.

African American Almanac, Sixth Edition, Gale Research, 1994.

Black Artists of the New Generation, New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1977.

Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993.

Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992. pp. 128-130.

The information on this web-page is for educational and research purposes.  Article entries and images are not my own. Please review sources and links above for more information. This blog post is for educational purposes only and for sharing valuable information to others interested in the arts.

Thank you.

Kymberli's Art Blog Quick Art History Reads

Kymberli View All →

Welcome to my site!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: