AN AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES PROFESSOR, Imani Perry is selling a portrait by Amy Sherald, that depicts a Black woman looking regal, poised, and dignified. The subject is wearing a jeweled crown, pearl necklace, and an elegant, navy blue gown with white opera-length gloves and a violet sash á la a beauty queen. Her red lips match the picture’s scarlet background. Titled “Welfare Queen” (2012), the painting is featured in the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips New York this week.

The enigmatic portrait is layered with meaning. News reports in the Chicago Tribune repeatedly used the term “welfare queen” in the mid-1970s when the newspaper published articles about a mixed-race woman who rampantly abused public assistance programs under several aliases across multiple states. The derogatory term was popularized when Ronald Reagan repeated the narrative during his presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and the trope resurfaced in the 1990s when welfare reform was a central component of Bill Clinton’s presidential policies. Early on, the negative label invariably became associated with Black women.


Lot 15: AMY SHERALD, “Welfare Queen,” 2012 (oil on canvas, 54 x 43 1/8 inches / 137.2 x 109.5 cm). | Estimate $1.2 million-$1.8 million. SOLD for $3.2 million (hammer price), $3,902,000 fees included


“And despite the fact that Black women were excluded from the welfare state benefits for the first decades of the program, public assistance had come to be negatively associated with Black women. It haunted us. How could this be our image in the public, Black women who we knew almost universally worked endlessly to make something out of nothing?” Perry wrote in an essay for Phillips about the painting.

Turning the stereotype on its head, Sherald’s subject stands proud, a vision of traditional grace and exceptionalism.

“What first drew my attention was the figure. A Black woman, with layers of blue beneath her skin, poised, elegant, bearing a crown. She is an embodiment of Black Southern defiant dignity. Our mothers and grandmothers, the women who cooked and cleaned and labored in fields, were treated as inferior, yet they still bore themselves with endless grace and modeled it for us. Before I knew much about the artist, Amy Sherald, I knew the intimate story she was telling,” Perry wrote. “I felt I had to have a piece by her, and I wanted this one in particular.”

“Before I knew much about the artist, Amy Sherald, I knew the intimate story she was telling. I felt I had to have a piece by her, and I wanted this one in particular.” — Imani Perry

Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. She is also the author of six books. A new volume, “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation,” is forthcoming in January.

The Princeton professor discussed the painting in a video made with Phillips, a marketing strategy auction houses employ regularly to promote single owner sales and significant individual auction lots. By contrast, it is unusual for a collector to write the lot essay that accompanies the artwork they are consigning for sale, which Perry also did. She provided insights about the painting, drawing on her academic background and her personal experience living with the work.

“What at first glance appears to be a simple composition, has a remarkable complexity,” Perry wrote. “Through the days and through the seasons, as the light shifted, and our lives changed, this painting was an endless discovery: new patterns, distinct brushstrokes, a realization of how the nuance of the figure’s body strikes differently based on where you are standing. ‘Welfare Queen’ was the centerpiece of our home as my sons came of age. We looked at it when feeling joy and when we were in tears. It anchored our own pursuit of dignity and grace when life was most challenging.”

She goes on to state the she had a tight budget and was “hardly in the position” to collect art when she acquired the portrait. Perry was able to buy the painting because Sherald agreed to let her pay for it in installments.

“Her generosity was heart-warming and frankly life changing. It was the first significant piece of art I ever owned,” Perry wrote.


Collector and professor of African American studies Imani Perry discusses “Welfare Queen” by Amy Sherald. Perry is putting the painting up for auction next week at the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips New York on Nov. 17. | Video by Phillips


Painted nearly a decade ago, “Welfare Queen” was included in “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response,” a group exhibition at Galerie Myrtis in Baltimore, Md,. in 2012-13, and a solo show dedicated to Sherald in Charlottesville, Va. “Off the Chain: American Art Unfettered” was on view at Second Street Gallery in 2015, the year before Sherald won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery. She was the first female and first Black artist to win the competition. The prize led to First Lady Michelle Obama selecting Sherald to paint her official portrait for the Smithsonian museum. The commission brought global attention to Sherald and her practice.

The artist’s images of Obama and the subject of the portrait up for auction possess a similar mien. “…A kind of an exercise in grace that is very recognizable in traditional Black community, particularly in the South, but is very rarely seen in the public arena as the face of Black womanhood,” Perry said in the video. “Sherald’s work is particularly potent because it has emotional and intellectual sensibility to it.”

“Sherald’s work is particularly potent because it has emotional and intellectual sensibility to it.” — Imani Perry

“Welfare Queen” is the fourth painting by Sherald to be offered at auction. The first was “Innocent You, Innocent Me” (2016), which depicts a young man in a yellow striped hoodie. Estimated at $80,000-$120,000, it sold for $350,000 at Christie’s New York in May 2019. That result inched up the estimate for her work to $150,000-$200,000, against which Sherald’s current auction record was set last year. “The Bathers” (2015), a double portrait of two young women wearing bathing suits, soared to more than $4.2 million in December 2020 at Phillips New York. The result was more than 20 times the estimate.

Sherald provided Culture Type with a statement about “Welfare Queen” being sold at auction. “Despite its common occurrence, it can feel personal when a painting is put up for auction by a collector. Especially, in this case, when it’s someone you know and worked with to accommodate an alternative payment arrangement to acquire the piece in the first place. It is every artist’s hope that collectors will do the right thing by the work and for the artist by leveraging the gallery to assist in placing the work,” Sherald said in part.

“Currently, artists are writing into contracts destination clauses as well as rights for a percentage of the resale on the secondary market. This continues to be an ongoing discussion, but for the time being something we have been forced to accept. This is precisely why identifying the right steward at the outset is paramount in the placement of your work. In the end, not everyone is motivated to align their interest with that of the artist and the work.”

The Phillips auction is Nov. 17. “Welfare Queen” carries an estimate of $1.2 million-$1.8 million.

Perry said it was hard to let the painting go. “It is my hope,” she wrote, “that the next owner will share my sense of duty in acting as a good steward of the painting. I sincerely believe that it ought to be in the possession of someone who has both the means and sensibility to ensure that it will be protected in the long term, and available when appropriate to the public.” CT


UPDATE (11/17/21): Auction sales results added

UPDATE (11/16/21): Amy Sherald’s response to a general question about having her work sold at auction, which was cited from a conversation published in the March issue of Interview magazine, has been replaced by an email statement Sherald provided to Culture Type about the sale of “Welfare Queen”


FIND MORE about Amy Sherald on her website and at her gallery Hauser & Wirth


READ MORE New artist resale rights contract in the US has a charitable twist, from The Art Newspaper


FIND MORE Imani Perry reviewed Rebecca Hall’s new Netflix film “Passing” for Bazaar magazine


“The Obama Portraits” explores the portraits Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley painted of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, respectively, for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “Amy Sherald,” the artist’s first monograph, was published on the occasion of her exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, her first solo museum show at a major art museum. Imani Perry is the author of six books, including “Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry” and “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons,” Artwork by Lezley Saar covers “Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation” by Perry and Lorna Simpson’s “7 Mouths” is featured on the cover of her book “More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.” Forthcoming in January, Perry’s “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation” features “Cotton to Hair” (2009), a mixed-media work by artist Sonya Clark on the cover.


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