A 1956 painting by French modernist Pierre Soulages that once belonged to the poet, intellectual, and former president of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor, who died in 2001, sold on Saturday at French auction house Caen Enchères for €1.5 million ($1.8 million), against an estimate of €800,000.
Senghor, an advocate of modern art during his tenure as Senegal’s president from 1960–80, purchased the abstract painting titled Painting 81 x 60 cm, December 3, 1956, directly from the artist during a studio visit in Paris the year that it was completed. The canvas features the painter’s signature 1950s style of black impasto brushstrokes on a neutral background, prior to his outrenoir period in the late 1970s.
The work had long been displayed in Senghor’s office in Verson, France, where he and his wife, Colette, lived in the 1980s following the end of his presidency, according to Caen. It passed onto Senghor’s sister-in-law in 2019 following Colette’s death, and then to the anonymous seller for the Caen auction, who is not a relative of the Senghors.
In addition to its impressive ownership record, the work was showcased in a solo exhibition dedicated to Soulages in 1974 at the Musée Dynamique in Dakar. The establishment of the museum in 1966, six years after Senegal’s official independence from France, was one of a series of cultural projects executed under Senghor’s leadership. In post-colonial Senegal, Senghor was a major contributor to the development of the country as a key centre for visual arts in Africa; he also founded the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966.
An avid supporter of modern art movements in Europe and Africa, Senghor described Soulages’s work in his 1958 Lettres Nouvelles: “The first time I saw a painting by Pierre Soulages it was a shock. I received a blow in the pit of my stomach that made me wobble, like the affected boxer who suddenly breaks down. This is exactly how I felt when I first saw a ‘Dan’ mask,” referring to the art form of the Dan people of Liberia.
In 1974, in a speech at the Soulages exhibition in Dakar, the Senghor described the French artist’s work further as “brother of Negro-African art not by imitation but by nature.” Years earlier, Senghor analyzed Soulages’s work in an article titled, “The Poetry of Pierre Soulage,” writing, “For the traditional Negro-African painters, it is black which naturally expresses life, while white expresses death.”