Robert Colescott’s Caustic Satire of ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ Is Poised to Reset the Artist’s Market at Sotheby’s Next Month

Estimated to go for $9 million to $12 million, the painting is expected to smash the artist’s current auction record of $912,500. 

Robert Colescott, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook (1975). © 2019 Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jean Paul Torno.

The late American painter Robert Colescott’s charged satire of Washington Crossing the Delaware will hit the auction block next month—and it is poised to smash the late artist’s current auction record. 

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, as the artist’s landmark 1975 canvas is called, is set to highlight Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction in New York on May 12. It’s estimated to go for $9 million to $12 million—that’s roughly 10 times Colescott’s current auction record of $912,500, set in 2018.

The Washington painting carries a financial guarantee, according to the auction house, making it certain to sell. Colescott’s profile has been on a steady incline in recent years, spurred in part by support from artist Kerry James Marshall, who has been vocal about Colescott’s influence on his work. Blum & Poe also began representing the artist’s estate in 2017. His public auction prices, however, do not currently reflect his stature. 

Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, a staple of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection since 1897 (not to mention scores of American history texts) is the overt reference behind Colescott’s 20th-century masterwork. But where the former artist lionizes the general in a macho wartime scene, Colescott’s take is much more caustic: Washington and his men are replaced by inventor agricultural scientist Washington Carver and a boat full of cartoonish Black caricatures—a banjo player, a barefoot fisherman, and a mammy figure performing fellatio on the flag bearer. 

“With its social and political resonance and sheer pictorial force, today Colescott’s painting greatly rivals the iconic quality of its source image, offering a critical reckoning with the history of American art,” David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s New York contemporary evening auctions, said in a statement.

According to the auction house, the painting has remained in the same Midwestern collection since 1976, when it was purchased from John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. Sotheby’s declined to share additional information about the identity of the consignor, but the Art Newspaper reports that it belonged to the late Robert and Lois Orchard of St. Louis, Missouri.

George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware was included in the critically acclaimed retrospective of Colescott’s work that opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati in 2019 before traveling to the Portland Art Museum. The exhibition, curated by Lowery Stokes Sims and Matthew Weseley, will wrap up its tour this summer at the Sarasota Art Museum. 

Meanwhile, Colescott’s painting is on public view now through April 21 at the auction house’s Hong Kong branch. After that run, it will head to Sotheby’s New York for a May 1 through 12 exhibition leading up to the sale.

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