A TENDER AND REVOLUTIONARY PORTRAIT of Harriet Tubman by Kerry James Marshall sold for more than $5 million last night at Christie’s New York. Titled “Still Life with Wedding Portrait,” the painting depicts the abolitionist posing with her husband John Tubman. Interest in the 2015 painting far exceeded its $1 million to $1.5 million estimate. The lot was bid up to $5,037,500 (including fees)*, an artist record, according to Christie’s sales results.
Marshall’s portrait of Tubman sold at Christie’s Nov. 15 Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale. It was a historic night. Adam Pendleton‘s “Black Dada (K)” sold for $225,000 (including fees), an artist record. Meanwhile, the world record for the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction was set at the same sale when “Salvator Mundi,” a Leonardo da Vinci painting from 1500 sold for a staggering $450.3 million (including fees).
The new record for Marshall is more than twice the artist’s previous high mark, which was achieved last year when “Plunge,” a 1992 swimming pool painting sold at Christies for $2,165,000 (including fees).
“STILL LIFE WITH WEDDING PORTRAIT” portrays an image of Tubman the world has never seen. Her place in history is secure. She is universally regarded as a brave freedom fighter—a fearless abolitionist who freed dozens of enslaved people and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Seeking an alternative portrait, Marshall channeled her humanity and dimensionality. The bow on Tubman’s crisp white blouse is tied just so and the pink of her cuff complements the pink flower accenting her hair. Meanwhile, her husband rests his hands tenderly on her shoulders. She is feminine and loved, yet her wisdom and strength remains evident in her confident gaze.
Marshall portrays an image of Tubman the world has never seen. Her place in history is secure. She is universally regarded as a brave freedom fighter—a fearless abolitionist who freed dozens of enslaved people and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Seeking an alternative portrait, the artist channeled her humanity and dimensionality.
A painting within a painting, two art handlers are shown preparing to hang Marshall’s vision of their wedding portrait. The Tubmans’ names and the year 1844 are inscribed in the top left corner of the work.
The owner who consigned “Still Life with Wedding Portrait” for sale at Christie’s, acquired the painting from a 2015 benefit auction at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The painting was on view in “Mastry,” Marshall’s 30-year career survey which opened in April 2016 at MCA Chicago, and traveled to The Met Breuer in New York and MOCA Los Angeles. The work is illustrated in the catalog for “Mastry” and a more recent volume “Kerry James Marshall,” released earlier this year by Phaidon.
Christie’s published a lengthy lot essay about the painting. It begins by describing the work as a “deeply evocative painting which combines American history and contemporary politics. Part homage to a civil rights hero, part critique of the traditions of art history, this large-scale painting powerfully reminds us of the exclusion of African American culture and history in the wider art historical canon.”
The catalog for “Mastry” points out the significance of the details and composition of the painting. “In the buoyant ‘Still Life with Wedding Portrait,’ Marshall depicts a young Harriet Tubman, the famous abolitionist and escaped slave, and her husband, John, a free black man about whom little is known,” Karsten Lund writes. “Four hands position the couple’s marriage portrait on the wall: three wear the standard white gloves used for handling art, but the fourth is clad in leather, reminiscent of the black-gloved salute that the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised in protest while receiving medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics.”
Kerry James Marshall discussed the vision for his Harriet Tubman portrait during a press tour of his Mastry exhibition at MCA Chicago, on April 21, 2016. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
WHEN “MASTRY” OPENED AT MCA CHICAGO, Marshall walked journalists through the exhibition and spoke at length about the paintings he made over the past three decades, including “Still Life with Wedding Portrait.”
In a gallery featuring paintings of Tubman and Nat Turner, Marshall smiled and said “this is the room of rebels.” Then he said he wanted to take the opportunity to explain the work.
“We never consider, where did the Tubman name come from? Well the Tubman name came from the fact that she married a man named John Tubman. But we don’t think of people like Harriet Tubman as having that kind of life. There is no domestic dimension of Harriet Tubman’s life, in our imagination. There’s certainly no romanticism in Harriet Tubman’s life,” Marshall said.
“What I wanted to do is give her back that space in which she could be desired, was wanted, and was able to be married, to not have her be trapped perpetually in this sort of historical labor of just operating to free other people. She also had another kind of life. She had a more complex life than that. Somehow you have to give that to historical figures—the complexity of their lives—because we tend to reduce their existence to a series of sound bite-like qualities that don’t allow them the fullness of their humanity and, for her, the fullness of her femininity, as well.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Lot 3B: KERRY JAMES MARSHALL (B. 1955), “Still Life with Wedding Portrait,” 2015 (acrylic on PVC panel). | Estimate $1 million-$1.5 million. Sold for $5,037,500 (including fees)
* Christie’s sale prices include premium fees, estimates do not account for fees.
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Released earlier this year by Phaidon, “Kerry James Marshall” is a fully illustrated documentation of the artist’s career and includes a conversation with fellow artist Charles Gaines. “Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” a comprehensive, cloth-covered catalog was published to accompany the artist’s 30-year survey and includes essays by the curators and writings by Marshall on a range of topics, from his Rythm Mastr comic series to artists Mickalene Thomas and Horace Pippin. An extensive interview with Marshall is featured in the exhibition catalog “Painting and Other Stuff.” “Kerry James Marshall: Look See” coincided with the artists’s first exhibition with David Zwirner gallery in London in 2014.
Installation view of KERRY JAMES MARSHALL, “Still Life with Wedding Portrait,” 2015 (acrylic on PVC panel), with “Black Star 2” in the background at left. | Photo courtesy MCA Chicago