Artist to Know: Eldzier Cortor

Liz Catalano
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Toomey & Co. to Offer Oil Painting from Chicago Black Renaissance Artist

Speaking to the Art Institute of Chicago, Eldzier Cortor recalled the catalyst that prompted him to paint: “Once, there was a fellow. He was able to read minds! He said, ‘let me read your fortune.’ He says, ‘you’re going to be a famous painter one day… but you’re gonna have a hell of a time.’”

Cortor’s career lasted over 70 years, and he participated in many influential artistic movements throughout the 20th century. However, his fortune teller was at least partially correct in his predictions: for the majority of his life, Cortor was underrepresented both in galleries and at auction. However, his work has recently drawn attention as collectors re-examine the African American artists of the Chicago Black Renaissance movement. One of Cortor’s paintings, titled Local Color, will be offered in Toomey & Co. Auctioneers’ upcoming Art & Design sale on June 28th, 2020. Get to know Eldzier Cortor before the bidding begins.

Eldzier Cortor. Image from the Chicago Tribune.
Eldzier Cortor. Image from the Chicago Tribune.

At an early age, Cortor’s family moved from Richmond, Virginia, to the South Side of Chicago. He would spend many of his working years in the city, starting his career during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Under the protection of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)’s Federal Art Project, Cortor found early work as a painter. His task was to “[depict] scenes of African American social life in the slums of Chicago’s South Side,” according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He would do more than capture the slums, however. Cortor helped found the South Side Community Art Center, the only African American art center opened under the WPA. It remains operational today after over 75 years.

Cortor’s painting style also developed while working with the WPA. He traveled extensively, visiting the Gullah people of the Sea Islands and, later, areas of Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti. These experiences prompted a deep interest in African heritage across the diaspora, something he began working to preserve in his paintings. Cortor especially focused on Black women for the subjects of his works, which was intentional: “The Black woman represents the Black race,” he said. “She is the Black Spirit; She conveys a feeling of eternity and a continuance of life.”

His early 20th-century works actively countered the prevailing derogatory stereotypes about African Americans. Bringing together traditional African heritage and the African American experience, Cortor painted dozens of portraits of Gullah women with elongated faces and graceful bodies. These works are now held by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Eldzier Cortor. Southern Gate, 1942-1943. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Eldzier Cortor. Southern Gate, 1942-1943. Image from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Though typically associated with the Chicago Black Renaissance, the movement that mirrored New York’s Harlem, Cortor has seen less popularity than many of his contemporaries. When he died at the age of 99 in 2015, his work had only begun to enter the mainstream. An exhibition of his woodblock prints hung in the Art Institute of Chicago months before his passing, celebrating the impact of his work on African American art.

Prices for the artist’s paintings have historically remained steady, typically fetching a few thousand dollars each. Eastern States Auction Service sold a small Cortor oil painting for USD 4,000 in 2013, and Christie’s auctioned an untitled ink piece for $6,875 the same year. Cortor’s auction record was set in September of 2005 with Roof Tops on Wabash, a 1938 piece that shows a room and an open window. Treadway Toomey Auctions sold the work for $34,000.

Eldzier Cortor, Local Color. Image from Toomey & Co.
Eldzier Cortor, Local Color. Image from Toomey & Co.

More recently, the newly-launched Black Art Auction sold a color mezzotint piece from Cortor’s 1980s Jewels series. It was sold for $6,875 in May of 2020, within its presale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000. Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will also offer an oil painting by Cortor in the upcoming Art & Design sale. This undated piece shows the profile of a man sitting on the steps of a porch. One hand fingers his untied shoelaces while the other rests beside his leg. Inscribed on the back with “Local Color” / Eldzier Cortor / #5328, this painting has an estimate of $1,000 to $2,000.

“To be honest,” says Mark Pascale, the curator of the 2015 Art Institute show, “Cortor drives some people crazy. They think this stuff is tacky. But it is done in a particular voice, and art without voice isn’t art.” Increasingly, collectors and enthusiasts are rediscovering Cortor’s voice and legacy. 
The Art & Design auction will be held on June 28th, 2020, at 10:00 AM CDT. For more information on the Cortor painting and other items, visit Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.