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Inaugural Boutique Auction: African American Art on April 21

April 16, 2012 | view archive

Inaugural Boutique Auction: African American Art on April 21

April 21 marks the inauguration of our new Boutique Auctions, presented as part of our monthly Art & Antique Auctions.  The focus of this premier auction, managed by Thom Pegg of Tyler Fine Arts in St. Louis, is  African American Art.  

The auction catalog, comprised of carefully selected works by some of the most recognizable artists of the 20th Century, reads like a Who’s Who of African American artists.  Their influence and imagery can be found in every aspect of American art.  The artwork represented in this auction encompasses a broad spectrum of style and media, including traditional paintings and sculpture through works by Harlem Renaissance artists, the Black Art Movement from Chicagoas well The American School and the Outsider Art Movement.


This auction could be interpreted to represent the struggle of many African Americans who often walked a thin line between established African American Art movements like Chicago’s Black Art movement and the Harlem Renaissance, and a desire to be accepted as part of the mainstream of American art community. 


Works presented in this auction demonstrate a rich cultural history of dedicated artists who at times drew influence from the outside world, while at other times, managed to turn the tables and effectively influence the world of art beyond the boundaries of their own particular communities and movements. 


I am pleased to share with you some of the highlights from this very special auction.




Mountain Laurels (1910), a floral still life by Charles Ethan Porter (1847-1923), is the oldest work in this auction.  Porter was Connecticut native who studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris before settling in the Hartford area.  His work was highly sought after early in his career, but as the tides of racial perceptions shifted with the dawn of the 20th Century, it became increasingly difficult for him to sell his work.  By the end of his life, Porter was reduced to selling his paintings door to door.  Though he died poor and in relative obscurity, his works are now highly collected.



Thanks to the WPA, many cultural art centers developed in major African American communities in the US cities during the 1930s and 40s.  These art centers provided employment and professional art instruction for their communities.  Art movements and styles associated with their specific geographic locations swiftly followed.


At the heart of the Harlem Renaissance was the Harlem Arts Workshop.  Sculptor Augusta Savage (1892-1962) is known as the founder of the Harlem Arts Workshop.  In 1937, she became the first director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, funded by the WPA.  She is represented by her most well-known work, Gamin (est. $25,000-$35,000), ca. 1929, won the artist a scholarship, enabling her to travel to Europe. Examples of this sensitively rendered street urchin are in the permanent collections of many museums, including the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian, Detroit Institute of Arts, The University of Virginia Art Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Read the IMA's  bloq about the 2008 acquisition of Gamin


“As an artist… I am intensely interested in probing, exploring the problems of color, space and form, which challenge all Contemporary painters.  However, as a black American… I cannot but be sensitive and responsive in my painting to the injustice, the indignity and the hypocrisy suffered by black citizens.”-- Charles Altson (1907-1977)


Charles Alston holds a place of great honor among twentieth century American artists.  During a difficult period in American history, Alston was a trail blazer for African American artists. Among his many accomplishments, Alston was the first African American Advisor of the WPA.  In 1950, he became the first African American instructor at the Arts Student League in New York.  In 1990, Alston’s bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. became the first image of an African American to be on display in the White House.  Two works lithographs by Alston are included in the April 21 Auction.


Alston will be represented by two lithographs in the April 21, including  Rockin’ n’ Rhythm (1929), depicting a sultry couple in the throes of a passionate dance, not only embodies the Jazz Age in New York, but also exemplifies Alston’s ability to convey a sculpture-like quality derived from African sculptures in his two-dimensional work.


Other artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance include Romare Bearden, and Elizabeth Catlett.







“The Black woman represents the Black Race.  She is the Black Spirit; she conveys a feeling of eternity, and the continuum of life.” –Eldzier Cortor




Eldzier Cortor's (b. 1916), 1946 work Woman in an Interior (est. $30,000-$50,000) demonstrates the Surrealists’ influence on African American artists during the mid 20th Century.  Cortor, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, was co-founder of the South Side Community Art Center. Woman in an Interior , is a steamy interior with one of the artist's stunningly beautiful African American female figures depicted as the central subject.  Pegg believes this painting will likely exceed its pre-sale estimate. 





“I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy. When I won that prize, all of a sudden, there was no longer a racial designation.” –Hughie Lee-Smith


As an artist exploring styles during the post-Expressionist era, Hughie Lee-Smith’s work is associated Magic Realism, frequently representing loneliness and isolation from society.  Lee-Smith managed to break through racial barriers in 1953, when he won top prize for one of his paintings from the Detroit Institute of Art.  This was a turning point in his perception of himself as an artist.  Years later, he said, “I was no longer called black artist, Negro artist, colored boy. When I won that prize, all of a sudden, there was no longer a racial designation.” Lee-Smith is represented by two works in this auction. 


"When Gertrude Stein and Ferdinand Leger told me that I would be a big American painter some day I felt a little honored, but when I heard that Picasso had said that I was on the right track I really felt honored."

-–Charles Sebree, 1940

Another artist affiliated with the Chicago’s black art movement and South Side Community Art Center is Charles Sebree (1914-1985).  A contemporary of Eldzier Cortor, Sebree demonstrated broad creative diversity, exploring set and costume design, theatrical production, dance and writing, in addition to painting.  His work is found in many prominent collections including the St. Louis Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.  The work presented in this auction, Saltinbanques (est. $8,000-$10,000), presented in its original frame,  is a trademark subject of Sebree’s work, which typically demonstrated the artist’s strong theatrical ties with depictions of Harlequins, street entertainers, actors and acrobats.







Ralph Arnold’s (1927-2006), 1976 mixed media construction Last Romance (est. $2,000-$3,000), echoes strong influence from Joseph Cornell, who was strongly aligned with the Surrealist and Dadaist movements during the early 20th Century.  Examples of Arnold’s collages and assemblages can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Fisk University and Rockford College.





There is sometimes a nearly indecipherable line drawn between what many consider “high” art versus “low” art.  The art movement commonly referred to as Outsider Art raises many philosophical questions.  Standing Figure, a primitive self portrait (est. by Mose Tolliver, shows this leader of the American Outsider Art Movement at its very best.  One part visionary, one part artist,  Tolliver’s work as has been widely exhibited and published.





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