Los Angeles’s still-under-construction Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has acquired Robert Colescott’s 1975 painting, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware River: Page from an American History Textbook, a riff on Emanuel Leutze’s widely known 1852 painting of the first President of the United States crossing the Delaware river by boat. Lucas Museum director and CEO Sandra Jackson-Dumont confirmed that the museum purchased the guaranteed work for $15.3 million with buyer’s fees during Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in New York on May 12, where it was estimated at $9 million.
“It’s exactly what the Lucas museum is looking at, this unbridled dismantling of high and low,” Jackson-Dumont said in an interview shortly after the sale. “Colescott is a great artist whose work has told so many stories.”
In Colescott’s painting, he has replaced the white figures in Leutze’s scene, which has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection for more than a century, with Black figures representing racist tropes that have been used throughout American history. Colescott, who in 1997 became the first Black artist to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, is recognized for his oeuvre’s satirical edge. He died in 2009.
“This particular one is both contemporary and historical,” Jackson-Dumont said, referring to the caricatures depicted in the painting. “It bridges popular culture and history. It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to make sure the Lucas Museum is participating in expanding the canon.”
Founded by filmmaker George Lucas his wife Mellody Hobson, the California museum, which comprises narrative art spanning many genres, has made some major purchases ahead of its opening in 2023. In January 2020, they acquired the Separate Cinema Archive, a collection of 37,000 objects documenting African American cinema history from 1904 to the present day. They also purchased Shufftleton’s Barbership (1959) by Norman Rockwell for $25 million when the Berkshire Museum sold it in 2018.
The Colescott painting came from the collection of St. Louis–based philanthropists and collectors Robert and Lois Orchard, who owned the the work since 1976. The work was also included in the 2018 exhibition “Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas,” at the Seattle Art Museum.
The record-shattering result at Sotheby’s was 16 times Colescott’s previous record of $912,500 set in November 2018. The result puts it among the few works by contemporary Black artists that have achieved an auction price above $10 million. Works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kerry James Marshall, and Mark Bradford are among the select few that have crossed that threshold. Second to Basquiat’s record price of $110.5 million is Marshall’s Past Times (1997), sold for $21.1 million in May 2018.