Robert Colescott’s Family to Sell Monumental ‘1919’ at Bonhams

Robert Colescott, 1919, 1980.

The Robert H. Colescott Separate Property Trust Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Trust.
Text size

A large, brilliantly colored painting by Robert Colescott entwining personal history and identity with race in the U.S. will be sold in a single-lot auction in September by Bonhams in New York. 

Colescott’s 1919, created with acrylic on canvas in 1980, refers to the year the artist’s family moved from New Orleans in the segregated South to Oakland, Calif. Against a royal blue background is a multi-colored map of the U.S. with the slogan “Go West,” emblazoned across the eastern states in reference to the oft-repeated phrase originally coined by the journalist John Babsone Lane Soule, according to a description of the painting by the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. 

The painting is being sold by Colescott’s family and is expected to realize as much as US$5 million. 

1919 was featured in an exhibition of 40 works by the artist at the Portland museum last year titled “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.” The show was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was also seen in Sarasota, Fla., Chicago, and at the New Museum in New York. 

The artist’s often satirical, comical works directly confronting racial identity and history have gained increasing market attention. Colescott’s bold take on Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he titled Carver George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook, 1975, for instance, soared to US$15.3 million, with fees, at a Sotheby’s auction of contemporary art in May 2021. It was purchased by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles.

1919, which measures nearly 6 feet by 7 feet, includes images of Colescott’s parents. His mother is depicted on the left side of the work with light skin, facing his father, on the right, who is depicted with darker skin and is wearing his World War I uniform. Both are nestled in billowing pink clouds littered with musical notes, a can, a slice of pie, a book, “what Colescott describes in 1981 as the ‘used underwear, popular trash, studio sweepings…that didn’t pass art history,’” according to the Portland Art Museum. 

Bonhams says the artist rendered his parents with different skin tones to reflect how they identified themselves; Colescott himself was raised to pass as white. The center of the painting shows two birds tending two chicks, who represent the artist and his older brothers. 

“The work confronts Colescott’s personal struggles with identity, and where they come from,” the auction house said in a news release. The depictions of his parents in 1919 provide more context to the artist’s work as it developed after the mid-60s, where he “challenged racist myths and satirized societal norms.”

Bonhams also held a single-lot auction for a Colescott work Miss Liberty, 1980, in February in Los Angeles. The painting, which depicts a Black woman as the Statue of Liberty, sold for US$4.5 million, with fees, to the Art Bridges Foundation, an organization founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton in Bentonville, Ark., to support American art.