Update: Elizabeth Catlett’s War Worker sold for $149,000–a new auction record for a painting by the artist.
What you see: War Worker, a 1943 tempera-on-board by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.
Who was Elizabeth Catlett? She was a 20th century African-American artist. She was best known for her sculptures, but she made prints and the occasional painting as well. She devoted herself to creating images that reflected the African-American experience. During the 1960s, she created a series of posters that depicted Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Harriet Tubman. She also created sculptures of Sojourner Truth and Louis Armstrong. She was active until she died in 2012 at the age of 96.
What makes War Worker so notable? “It’s very scarce. It’s only the second painting of hers to come to auction,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department, adding that it dates to a period in the 1940s when the artist lived in New York. Swann offered the first Catlett painting at auction in December 2015. Titled Friends, it sold for $81,250 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.
Why have so few of these paintings come to auction? Are they in institutions? “The works are just very scarce. They’ve been in people’s collections for a generation or more,” he says, adding that Friends did go to an institutional buyer. “Catlett passed not too long ago. There’s a growing sense of her significance that’s bringing the paintings to market. If you look at Friends, it’s definitely related to War Worker. Both are images of African-American workers.”
War Worker is smaller than 12 inches by 10 inches. Most of the known 1940s paintings are on the small side, and rendered in tempera. Do we know why? “She didn’t have a studio in the traditional sense. She had to work during the day at her teaching job,” he says, explaining his theory that Catlett may have made War Worker in her apartment, sitting down, perhaps with the paper in her lap. She might have chosen tempera for this reason, too–it doesn’t smell or give off fumes, as oil paints do. “It’s conducive to working in a non-studio environment,” he says. “The small size reinforces the intimacy of these works.”
Does Catlett approach the painting in a sculptural way? Does it hint at her future as a sculptor? “It’s a fascinating glimpse into her work as a modern artist,” he says. “She shows an interest in depicting average working men and women as a social realist. She’s also interested in abstracting the sculptural qualities of his face, flattening the forms. There’s a sculptural quality you see that comes forward in her work, which is interesting in view of her development as an artist.”
War Worker is estimated at $60,000 to $90,000. Do you think it has a chance to top Friends and set a new record for a Catlett painting at auction? “I think this will do very well, and could sell for more,” he says.
What else makes War Worker special? “It’s a really powerful image. These small paintings pack a punch,” Freeman says. “The accumulation of small strokes gives it an intensity. I think it’s going to resonate with the people who see it. We are excited to have it.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.