The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art confirmed that it purchased Robert Colescott’s 1975 painting George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook at auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 12. The sale price was $15.3 million.
The monumental painting, measuring 78 ½ x 98 ¼ inches, has been exhibited and published many times since it was first shown in a museum, in the Whitney’s 1978 traveling exhibition Art About Art. Over the years, it has come to be seen as the apex work in the career of Robert Colescott (1925–2009) and a stunning breakthrough in late 20th-century American art, emboldening many other artists with its outspoken Blackness, outraged and outrageous political content, high-handed appropriation of art history, and scabrous, satirical use of cartoon imagery.
Colescott’s painting reads as a “diss track” to Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware, a famous image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art endlessly reproduced in textbooks now becoming gradually infamous for its laughable depiction of the historic event. The painting being acquired by a major public institution assures that it will be accessible to future generations and rise in profile over the coming years.
Writing about the painting in 1984 for Artforum, Lowery Stokes Sims called George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware “a veritable masterpiece of unparalleled formal rigor and graphic grandeur,” which “radically rewrites the American national self-mythology, parodying the grandeur of historical genre painting while exposing the structural racial divides of the United States.”
“The acquisition of this significant painting brings into our collection a dynamic vehicle for exploring the many dimensions of narrative art. It is at once a contemporary and historical work of art,” Sandra Jackson-Dumont, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Lucas Museum, said. “Visitors to the Lucas Museum will be able to explore and unpack racially, socially, and historically charged and significant figures, such as George Washington Carver, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Ben, that Colescott intrudes into the patriotic narrative known from popular culture and Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic, 1851 Washington Crossing the Delaware. Our hope is that they will consider how a visual artist can charge and change the story with complex histories and emotions.”
George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware was first exhibited in 1975 at John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco. Private collectors in Saint Louis, Robert and Lois Orchard, acquired the painting from the gallery in 1976, and the work has remained in that collection until now.
About the Lucas Museum Collection
The Lucas Museum’s collection numbers more than 100,000 objects and is rapidly growing. It embraces narrative artworks from cultures around the world and of almost every era. The collection spans traditions from Northern European painting to contemporary African sculpture, from Japanese ukiyo-e prints to panels of murals, from book and magazine illustrations to the arts of filmmaking.
About the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art
The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is the first to focus exclusively on storytelling through images, establishing a distinctive approach to the world’s artistic canon. Through visual storytelling, we will inspire thought-provoking ideas and conversations that are relevant within and beyond geographic boundaries. Together with our diverse publics, we will explore narrative art’s potential to prompt questions, invite opinions, inspire community, and move people to think about the impact of images on our world. Our work will radiate to catalyze more connected and empathetic spaces, expanding the role of art and museums for society.
Currently under construction in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park, the Lucas Museum’s building is designed by renowned architect Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, with Stantec as the architect-of-record. Co-founded by George Lucas and Mellody Hobson and led by Director and Chief Executive Officer Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the museum is scheduled to open in 2023.