Masters on the Market: Elizabeth Catlett

Liz Catalano
Published on

‘Glory’ Sculpture by American-Mexican Artist Available at Wright

After completing her undergraduate work at Howard University, a young Elizabeth Catlett pursued a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa. She studied under American Gothic painter Grant Wood, whose advice changed the direction of her life. “Do something that you know a lot about, the most about,” Wood told Catlett and her peers. Catlett considered the things she knew: women, Black people, and working people. She returned to those subjects throughout her decades-long career, slowly gathering recognition and acclaim. She is now known as one of the leading American sculptors and graphic artists of the 20th century. 

A bronze sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett will come to auction with Wright on March 11th, 2021. Bidding will start at 11:00 AM EST. Learn more about Elizabeth Catlett before the auction begins. 

Elizabeth Catlett. Image by Fern Logan via Ebony.
Elizabeth Catlett. Image by Fern Logan via Ebony.

The granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, Elizabeth Catlett was born in Washington, D.C. She learned about oppression at a young age. Catlett’s grandparents taught her about their experiences, and her mother told her about life in the slums of D.C. Catlett pursued art through high school and college. She studied under Loïs Mailou Jones at Howard and turned toward sculpture while earning her Master’s degree. 

Political commentary formed the foundation of Catlett’s work. She traveled around the United States during the 1940s, engaging with various art and activist communities. These experiences inspired Catlett to create art for poor and disenfranchised individuals. Many of her sculptures depict Black women with children or in solitude. Other pieces capture famous figures such as Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. 

“Catlett kind of came of age as an artist when African-Americans and women were not part of the mainstream,” curator Isolde Brielmaier told NPR in 2012. “They were not part of the center. They were relegated to the margins and excluded.”

Elizabeth Catlett, Glory, 1981. Image from Wright.
Elizabeth Catlett, Glory, 1981. Image from Wright.

Catlett eventually moved to Mexico City to flee Jim Crow laws and America’s growing McCarthyism. She started working at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP) workshop and learned how art can serve the common people. She drew inspiration from the Mexican Muralists and eventually obtained Mexican citizenship. Over the next several decades, Catlett continued to make bronze sculptures, linocut prints, and other graphic artworks. 

The upcoming Wright auction will offer a cast bronze sculpture from Catlett’s mid-career. Titled Glory, Catlett made this 1981 piece after her retirement from teaching (USD 20,000 – $30,000). It demonstrates the artist’s signature style with the figure’s smooth skin, pronounced bone structure, and lightly-textured hair. 

During her lifetime, it was not always easy to display and sell Catlett’s artworks. The United States government targeted her after suspecting communist ties, costing Catlett her American citizenship. However, she enjoyed numerous retrospectives before her death in 2012, and she lived off her art through her retirement. Museums, cultural institutions, and auction houses have also emphasized the value of her artworks since the 1990s.

Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1952. Image from Black Art Auction.
Elizabeth Catlett, Sharecropper, 1952. Image from Black Art Auction.

Today, most acknowledge Catlett as one of the leading printmakers and sculptors of the 20th century. Her prices at auction reflect that status. Swann Auction Galleries presented Seated Woman, a 1962 carved mahogany sculpture, in October of 2019. The piece sold for $389,000 and more than doubled the high estimate. With this result, Catlett’s auction record increased by more than $100,000. Starting prices for her sculptures typically begin around $10,000. Works on paper are similarly valued. In February of 2021, Black Art Auction offered several works on paper by Catlett. A print of the artist’s iconic Sharecropper image sold for $18,750, just below the upper estimate.

The growing interest in Catlett’s work speaks to her skill and the enduring power of her social messages. She never intended to capture long-discarded history but rather the painful present. Most of all, Catlett wanted to empower those living under oppression. The New York Times quoted Catlett in the publication’s 2012 obituary: “I learned how you use your art for the service of people, struggling people, to whom only realism is meaningful.” It appears that her message still resonates today. 

Bidding for Elizabeth Catlett’s Glory sculpture will start at 11:00 AM EST on March 11th, 2021. Visit Wright for more information or to place a bid. 

Interested in learning more about America’s most prominent Black artists? Auction Daily recently dived into the work of American color field painter Sam Gilliam

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