One way to judge a work of art is to ask: does it strikes a chord for the general public? Does it touch on something universally familiar? Robert Colescott’s 1975 work, George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware River: Page from an American History Textbook, does just that.
A wry, satirical nod to Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware from 1852, which has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection for over 120 years (and been featured in nearly every history textbook in the United States), Colescott’s work will appear in Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 12 May with an estimate of $9m to $12m, leagues above the artist's current auction record of $912,500.
Colescott replaces Leutze’s more sober European influences with garish, cartoonish colours and caricatures: a man puffing a cigar while plucking on a banjo, a boozed-up chef, a woman hiking up her skirt, which forces the viewer to confront the racial bias inherent in American history and the tensions deeply embedded in American society.
The work was bought from John Beggruen Gallery in San Francisco in 1976, Sotheby’s says, and “has remained in the same esteemed private Midwestern collection ever since.” And while the auction house doesn’t comment on consigners, when the painting was on view in 2009 at the Jepson Center in Savannah, Georgia, it was listed as being in the collection of Robert and Lois Orchard of St. Louis Missouri.
The work is currently on view in Hong Kong until 21 April and will travel to Los Angeles from 24 to 26 April before landing in New York for public viewing from 1-12 May.