Saint Louis Art Museum Has Acquired ‘Seated Woman,’ Elizabeth Catlett’s Record-Setting Sculpture

October 31, 2019

A CARVED MAHOGANY sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) set a new artist record in New York this week. “Seated Woman” (1962) sold for $389,000 (fees included) at Swann Auction Galleries African-American Fine Art sale on Oct. 8.

“Elizabeth Catlett was especially deserving of a new record, and ‘Seated Woman’ was the perfect work to do it, embodying all the wonderful qualities found in her wood sculpture,” Nigel Freeman, director of African-American Fine Art at Swann Galleries said in a statement.

Lot 63: ELIZABETH CATLETT (1915-2012), “Seated Woman,” 1962 (carved mahogany, 1962, 572 x 343 x 178 mm / 22 1/2 x 13 1/2 x 7 inches). | Estimate $100,000-$150,000. Sold for $389,000 fees included ($320,000 hammer price). RECORD

“Seated Woman” was the auction’s top lot. According to Swann, Catlett’s wood sculptures from the late 1950s and early 60s are hard to come by and, standing 22.5 inches high, “Seated Woman” is the earliest to come to auction.

The day after the sale, Swann indicated an institution had purchased the sculpture. Today, the Saint Louis Art Museum announced it has acquired the record-breaking work.

“‘Seated Woman’ is a marvelous example of the strong female form, mix of naturalism and abstraction, lustrous finish and incorporation of wood grain into the subject for which Catlett is most celebrated,” Melissa Wolfe, the museum’s curator of American art, said in a statement.

A pivotal figure in 20th century sculpture, Catlett is also recognized for her printmaking. She focused on black representation, addressed social and political issues, and also centered the experiences of women. Wolfe noted that Catlett was also an African American artist who lived for six decades in Mexico. She drew on a variety of cultural influences, including pre-Hispanic stone carvings and African wood carvings.

“‘Seated Woman’ is a marvelous example of the strong female form, mix of naturalism and abstraction, lustrous finish and incorporation of wood grain into the subject for which Catlett is most celebrated.”
— Curator Melissa Wolfe

“SEATED WOMAN” was originally acquired directly from the artist by George W. Crockett, Jr. and Ethelene J. Crockett, M.D., a prominent couple in Detroit. She was the first African-American female board certified OB/GYN in the state of Michigan and the first woman to serve as president of the American Lung Association.

He was an attorney, judge, Congressman, and founding member of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), the first racially integrated bar association. NLG was active in the civil rights movement. Crockett founded the NLG’s Jackson, Miss., office and was later installed as a national vice-president. He spent 12 years on the Recorder’s Court in Wayne County, Mich. Elected in 1966, he served his last four years as chief judge (1974-78). Elected to national office, he served as a democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1980 to 1991.

Expected to bring $100,000-$150,000, “Seated Woman” soared. Bids started at $85,000 and kept climbing until they reached $320,000. With fees, the sculpture sold for $389,000, more than twice the estimate.

Catlett’s previous high mark at auction was achieved a decade ago, also at Swann. In 2009, “Homage to my young black sisters” (1968), a red cedar sculpture with painted and carved details, sold for $288,000.

Brent R. Benjamin, director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said that acquiring a major work by Catlett had been a longstanding priority for the Midwest institution. The museum plans to exhibit “Seated Woman” in early 2020.

“We are delighted to add this exceptional sculpture to the collection,” Benjamin said in a statement. “As a modernist wood sculpture by an African American woman artist, ‘Seated Woman’ will significantly enrich our American art collection.” CT

The Saint Louis Art Museum is currently showing “The Shape of Abstraction: Selections from the Ollie Collection,” which features works by five generations of black artists “who have revolutionized abstract art since the 1940s.”

READ MORE about why American artists and their estates should benefit from the resale of their works

Elizabeth Catlett (American, April 15, 1915–April 2, 2012) was a sculptor, painter, and printmaker well-known for producing politically charged black Expressionistic sculptures and prints in the 1960s and the 1970s. Catlett was born in Washington, DC, and attended Dunbar High School. She received a scholarship to study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, PA, but was rejected by the institution because of her race. In 1935, Catlett earned a BS and graduated cum laude from Howard University School of Art, in Washington, DC. She went on to graduate with an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1940, before moving on to study ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago, IL. In 1942, she studied lithography at the Art Students League in New York City, and then, in 1943, she joined Ossip Zadkine to study sculpting. In most of her works, the artist combined fundamental elements of African traditions with the traditions of African Americans and western Mexico.