“The Businessmen” (1947) by Jacob Lawrence

 

THE WHITE HOUSE ACQUISITION TRUST purchased “The Builders” by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) from Christie’s auction house on May 24, 2007. A few months later, First Lady Laura Bush had already incorporated the 1947 painting into her renovation of the Green Room, a formal sitting room on the State Floor of the White House.

“I like the strength of it. It’s a very, very strong picture. The people in it are strong. He liked the idea of a lot of people working together to build,” Bush told a Washington Post reporter during a tour. “I think that’s really just a picture of our country; that’s what our country relies on.”

The White House paid $2,504,000 (including fees) for “The Builders,” an auction record for Lawrence. Bids skyrocketed past the estimate ($400,000-$600,000) and the lot sold for more than four times the high end of the anticipated price.

The record has stood for more than a decade. This month, another 1947 painting by the artist may surpass the benchmark.

Lawrence’s “The Businessmen” is featured in Sotheby’s Nov. 14 Contemporary Art Evening Auction in New York. The painting carries an estimate of $1,500,000-$2,000,000. If bidding exceeds the high estimate, with the premium fees, the sale would set a new artist record.

The record has stood for more than a decade. This month, “The Businessmen” another 1947 painting by the artist may surpass the benchmark.

PART OF HIS SERIES “In the Heart of the Blackbelt,” Lawrence executed “The Businessmen” with egg tempera on hardboard. He depicts five black men clothed in dark suits, intensely reviewing documents from their briefcases. Painted in a limited palette of black, brown, red, yellow, and white, the image is tightly composed with the group seated in a semi-circle.

In its description of the painting, Sotheby’s notes Lawrence’s technical approach and the manner in which he handles paint: “The painting exemplifies Lawrence’s signature Cubist-based style, evident in the artist’s skillful flattening of pictorial space, his reductive color palette and his simplified, abstract rendering of the human figure.”

The essay continues, “…Lawrence employs a mix of dark and light tones to delineate the figures and their clothing, giving rise to tonal variations that suggest volume and articulate a syncopation of rhythms. This formal device gives the painting a remarkable dynamism,…”

“‘The Businessmen’ exemplifies Lawrence’s signature Cubist-based style, evident in the artist’s skillful flattening of pictorial space, his reductive color palette and his simplified, abstract rendering of the human figure.”

SEVENTY YEARS AGO, “The Businessmen” appeared in the pages of Fortune magazine (August 1948). After his seminal “The Migration Series,” depicting African American migration from the rural South to the industrial North, was published in Fortune in 1941, the magazine commissioned Lawrence to return to the South. He traveled to cotton country in 1947 to observe post-war African American life. Lawrence made 10 paintings based on his impressions of what he saw.

Three of the paintings are featured in Fortune. In addition to “The Businessmen,” a painting called “Gee’s Bend,” documenting the Alabama community known for its artful quilts, and “In the Heart of the Blackbelt,” the title work in the series depicting a crowded scene of “cotton choppers” piling into trucks to be transported home after a day of hard work in the fields, are also illustrated.

Photographer Walker Evans wrote the introductory text that accompanied the two-page spread. He said in part, “The strong tempera paintings on these pages—a little milder, a little more objective than before—are from Lawrence’s new series ‘In the Heart of the Black Belt.'” Evans called the paintings “daring” and emphasized that, compared with the panels in the “The Migration Series,” they were “milder—but not mild.”

The caption that accompanies “The Businessmen” reads: “Negro professional and businessmen are now sharing with church leaders in the guidance of their people. Lawrence depicts them as hard pressed.”

“Negro professional and businessmen are now sharing with church leaders in the guidance of their people. Lawrence depicts them as hard pressed.”

WORKS BY LAWRENCE are frequently offered for sale at auction houses large and small. Nearly all of the lots are limited-edition prints of his individual works and many narrative bodies of work. Original paintings by Lawrence are in the collections of museums across the country. Those that remain in private hands rarely come to auction.

In April, “Tension on the High Seas” (Panel No. 19), a 1956 panel from Lawrence’s “Struggle” series sold at Swann Auction Galleries. The long lost painting, unseen for decades brought $413,000. Christie’s American Art auction on Nov. 20 will feature “Letter From Home.” The painting was made in 1947, the same year both “The Builders” and “The Businessmen” were completed.

If “The Businessmen” garners more than $2.5 million, it will knock down an 11-year-old record. Even more significant—while Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) has joined the $100 million club and works by a select group of living black contemporary artists sell for seven and, for the first time this year, eight figures, at auction—Lawrence is the only African American artist active before the mid-20th century whose work has yielded north of $1 million at auction. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Lot 18: JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Business Men,” 1947 (egg tempera on hardboard, 20 1/8 x 24 inches / 51.1 x 70 cm.). | Estimate $1,500,000-$2,000,000. | SOLD for $6,169,800 (including fees). RECORD

 

UPDATED (11/14/18): Auction results added

 

READ MORE about artist resale rights and how artists might benefit from secondary sales on the auction market here and the debate about selling off Kerry James Marshall’s public art works here.

 

BOOKSHELF
“Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” was published to coincide the “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” the Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by Lawrence’s seminal series. Also consider, “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence” and the complete Jacob Lawrence catalog raisonne, published in 2000. “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem,” is a great introduction to Lawrence for children.

 


Lot 15: JACOB LAWRENCE, “The Builders,” 1947 (tempera on board, 20 x 24 inches / 50.8 x 61 cm). | Estimate $400,000-$600,000. Sold May 24, 2007, for $2,504,000 (including fees). RECORD

 

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