The Saint Louis Art Museum has acquired a sculpture by acclaimed African American artist Elizabeth Catlett. She is recognized as one of the nation’s most important 20th-century sculptors. The museum purchased “Seated Woman” on Tuesday October 9 at auction at Swann Auction Galleries in New York. The price was $389,000.
Catlett, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 96, was committed to realism because of its accessibility to everyday people, and to the female form, explaining, “in sculpture I’m thinking about form. But I’m also thinking about women, black women.” She wanted people to “see themselves” and their histories in her work, believing such affirmative depictions could enact social change.
“Seated Woman” is the earliest full-length work in wood to come to the auction market, and dates from her strongest period in sculpture, from 1955 to 1968.
Brent R. Benjamin, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the Saint Louis Art Museum, said that a major work by Catlett has been a long-held priority for the museum.
“We are delighted to add this exceptional sculpture to the collection,” Benjamin said. “As a modernist wood sculpture by an African American woman artist, ‘Seated Woman’ will significantly enrich our American art collection.”
Melissa Wolfe, the museum’s curator of American art, said that, as an African American artist working nearly her entire career in Mexico, Catlett drew on the influences of pre-Hispanic stone carvings and African wood carvings. Catlett felt strongly about recognizing the modern, intermingled cultural experiences that result from movement and re-location.
“‘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,” Wolfe said.
“Seated Woman” will be on view in early 2020. Funds for the museum’s purchase came from the Friends Fund Endowment, the MacMillan Trust, the James D. Burke Endowment and American art deaccessioning funds.