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St. Louis Art Museum Acquires Work By Famed Black Sculptor Elizabeth Catlett

St. Louis Art Museum acquired Elizabeth Catlett's "Seated Woman." [10/11/19]
St. Louis Art Museum

Visitors to St. Louis Art Museum will soon be able to see a newly acquired sculpture by an acclaimed black artist. 

The museum acquired a wood sculpture by the late artist Elizabeth Catlett on Tuesday. It spent $389,000 on the piece, which sets a record for a Catlett piece purchased at auction, according to ARTnews.

The sculpture, “Seated Woman,” will go on view at the museum in early 2020.

Catlett, who died in 2012 at 96, was celebrated for her depictions of African Americans, particularly women. She is known for both sculpture and print-making.  

“This was a work that we had been watching and wanting for a very, very long time,” said Melissa Wolfe, St. Louis Art Museum’s curator of American art. “In all my dreams, if I thought of what would be a perfect Elizabeth Catlett to add to the collection, it would be one exaclty like this.”

Wolfe said “Seated Woman” combines Catlett’s interest in realism with her influences from art from the African diaspora. The sculpture’s torso and legs are represented realistically, while the face suggests a wooden African mask, Wolfe said. 

“As a modernist wood sculpture by an African American woman artist, ‘Seated Woman’ will significantly enrich our American art collection,” museum director Brent R. Benjamin said in a statement.

The museum also owns one of Catlett’s better-known prints, “Sharecropper,” which depicts an elderly black woman who appears strong and determined, both physically and emotionally. 

“So many of her works are very explicitly about social justice and about the plight of workers in the '30s and '40s, of laborers and the working class,” Wolfe said. But Catlett also saw the value in simply depicting strong black people in whom viewers could see themselves. 

“She really believed in depicting the dignity and the beauty of the African American female world. African American women could see themselves in the world she was creating, and she felt that had just as strong of a social message and of social change as more political active [work],” Wolfe said.

Though many of Catlett’s works depicted the quiet dignity of black people in everyday moments, she also took inspiration from more prominent figures. 

Her prints depicting Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis and Malcolm X became popular posters, particularly at the height of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and '70s. Her larger-than-life-size sculpture of jazz legend Louis Armstrong sits in New Orleans’ Armstrong Park. Another, of famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth, can be seen in a public sculpture garden in Sacramento, California. Her 15-foot-tall bronze memorial to Ralph Ellison is installed in Manhattan’s Riverside Park.

Catlett was the granddaughter of enslaved people, a critic of American racism and an activist for workers’ rights. She was arrested in Mexico City in 1949 during a railroad workers’ strike, and renounced her U.S. citizenship in 1962 after the State Department denied her re-entry to the country because of her political activities.

She spent much of her life in Mexico, even after regaining her U.S. citizenship. According to her obituary in The New York Times, her work is collected by the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City; and the National Museum of Prague.

Jeremy can be found on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.