Skip to main content
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 1
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 2
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 3
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 4
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 5
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 6
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 7
ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 8
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 1
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 2
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 3
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 4
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 5
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 6
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 7
Thumbnail of ROBERT COLESCOTT (1925-2009) Miss Liberty, 1980 image 8
Lot 8
Miss Liberty, 1980
17 February 2023, 13:00 PST
Los Angeles

Sold for US$4,500,375 inc. premium

Own a similar item?

Submit your item online for a free auction estimate.

How to sell

Looking for a similar item?

Our Post-War and Contemporary Art specialists can help you find a similar item at an auction or via a private sale.

Find your local specialist

Ask about this lot


Miss Liberty, 1980

signed and dated 'R Colescott 80' (lower left); signed again, titled, inscribed and dated again 'MISS LIBERTY © Robert Colescott 1980' (on the stretcher bar)
acrylic on canvas

84 x 72 in.
213.4 x 182.9 cm.


The Fountain Gallery, Portland, OR
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in 1984

Portland, OR, The Fountain Gallery of Art, Figuration: New Image, 17 January-9 February 1985, [titled Lady Liberty]
Portland, OR, Reed College Vollum Gallery, Heroes, 20 September-31 October 1986

Lewis, Joe, "Those Africans Look Like White Elephants: An Interview with Robert Colescott," East Village Eye, October 1983, pp. 18-19. (reprinted from handout for exhibition at Semaphore Gallery, New York, Fall 1982)
Sims, Lowery S., "Bob Colescott Ain't Just Misbehavin'," Artforum, March 1984, p. 56 (illustrated), p. 59. [titled Lady Liberty]
Platow, Raphaela and Lowery Stokes Sims, eds. Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott, New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2019, pp. 125, 129, 205. [titled Lady Liberty, p. 125; titled Miss Liberty, pp. 129, 205]
Powell, Richard J., Going There: Black Visual Satire, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2020, p. 173, illustrated. [titled Lady Liberty]

"Colescott's paintings evoke possibilities and alternatives- a world in which stereotypes are debunked and beauty of every sort is equally acknowledged and appreciated" – Quincy Troupe, Robert Colescott's 'One-Two Punch', 1997, p. 10

There are few symbols that capture the soul of a nation like the figure Liberty herself. America was founded on the very premise, 'a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.' Lincoln's words at the Gettysburg Address ring timelessly through the American psyche. Yet here, in Robert Colescott's triumphant Miss Liberty, those same words are cast in a new light. A monumental painting that is one of the artist's most ambitious and unblushing, Miss Liberty is amongst those most special of canvases that sees Colescott tackle the impenetrable tenets of American identity with humor, candor, and a potent visual sense. Appearing jubilant and proud, he sets the stage to unravel and expose the flawed history of the country it stands representative for. Miss Liberty is a work that goes beyond satire and mere parody. It unwaveringly questions what it means to be American – how race and beauty factor into this equation – and reveals the true face of Liberty; an African American woman bearing the star-spangled sash before a continent awash with color. Miss Liberty stands as a hopeful embodiment of racial equality. But with his quintessential tone of voice, Colescott delivers a cunning and pointed appraisal of a nation that was, and remains, troubled by the very history that challenges the foundations of its making. It is one of Robert Colescott's masterpieces, and a rarity to come to market after having remained in the same private collection since 1984 and not seen in public since 1986.

Born in Oakland, California, Colescott was raised in a creative environment. With musicians and artists as mentors from childhood, Colescott's interest in art was already firmly in place when he was drafted as a teenager into the US Army to serve out the end of World War II in Europe. After achieving a bachelor's degree from University of California, Berkeley, in 1949, Colescott returned to Europe and studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. Colescott's year at the Atelier Léger established theories of Cubism and figuration as foundations of his mature work. During the early 1960s, Colescott's continuing interest in figuration was also influenced by his contemporaries in Northern California who were working in the Bay Area figurative style. The expressive colors and strong emotive tones characteristic of the Bay Area Figurative Movement became yet another fundamental element in Colescott's artistic practice. His work evolved into his celebrated exaggerated style soon after.

Colescott's work is typified by pairing his colorful and charming visual style with content that is often direct, and sometimes crude. He shares much with the heavily laden brushwork of Phillip Guston – not shying away from illustrative cues and a freshness to the worked surface that keeps the artist's hand ever-present. Indeed, Colescott and Guston are champions of a narrative painting that is laced with political nous and a satire that has made them both institutionally contentious and intensely revered. This dichotomy challenges the viewer to engage with their own perspectives, ideologies and attitudes towards topics as incendiary as race, politics, money and sex. Colescott's stylistic approach has been recognized as both controversial and enlightening, but ultimately, it is the friction within this coexisting duality that imbues the artist's work with a multitude of resonant interpretations.

As an artist who was deeply interested in the nature of stereotypes, art history, and the battlelines of culture, the figure of Lady Liberty is one of the most recognizable patriotic idols that Colescott could have identified to subvert. The sight of her for many marked their arrival on American soil, passing through Ellis Island in the early twentieth century where some twelve million immigrants were processed. In Colescott's Miss Liberty, the 'staging' of the subject casts her as a performer. Her appearance conjures those women who were regarded as the queens of soul, a regal ermine cape about her shoulders. And yet therein lies one of the artist's central tropes. Distilling the image of the black figure from popular culture, Colescott coaxes the audience to encounter their own understanding of black life in America. Through satire, humor and a popular sign, Colescott creates narrative profiles that are superficially sweet and admissible but open the door to more serious dissections of the American psyche. Couched in a painting that is magnificently bold and visually arresting, Miss Liberty is one of the grandest assertions into the canon by an artist in the post-war period.

As Lowery Sims noted in 1984, Colescott's paintings that center on the female subject are arguably his most charged and searingly critical: "What is also involved in our deciphering of the visual elements in Colescott's work is their provocative juncture with deeply rooted ideas of female modesty, male propriety, good versus bad girls, etc. In fact our ideas about female purity seem ironic given the exhibitionism that is part and parcel of such American institutions as cheerleaders, the beauty contests, and Hollywood sex symbols. The resulting confusion of reality with media-hyped images and roles has resulted in personal misery and conflict on the part of individuals looking for an ideal to aspire to, as well as the very individuals who have been chosen to embody that ideal" (Lowery S. Sims, 'Bob Colescott Ain't Just Misbehavin',' Artforum, March 1984, online). From this perspective, Miss Liberty becomes a subject plagued by the ideals she is spotlighted to personify and champion. Colescott deploys an intensity of visual indicators that place his Liberty – as a mixed-race individual – where they are to be found in his contemporary America: amongst a heap of banana skins and empty cans.

The first major museum retrospective of his work "Art & Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott" recently ended a nationwide tour. This exhibition was organized by the Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati in 2019 and toured to Portland, Akron, Sarasota, Chicago and concluding at the New Museum in New York in 2022. Although this work was not included and has never been exhibited publicly since it was purchased shortly after the artist created it, this museum exhibition allowed many to become familiar with the extent of the artist's oeuvre. The sister painting to Miss Liberty, 1919, was included in this exhibition. Painted in the same year as Miss Liberty, 1919 is a deeply personal reflection by the artist on his parents' decision to leave the South and relocate to Oakland, CA before he was born. His mother is depicted on the left and his father on the right in his WWI soldier's uniform. They were depicted as very light and very dark skinned respectively, not necessarily because that was how they appeared, but how they identified.

Colescott was an immense influence on so many contemporary artists working today. His lifelong ambition to paint the black body into the annuls of art history established a precedent for artists that included Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, and Lorna Simpson. His legacy as one of the great narrative painters of the twentieth century period is largely unparalleled. Colescott's work is included in the permanent collections of many notable institutions such as the Whitney Museum of Art, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Art, Boston; de Young Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Colescott's work has been the subject of over twenty solo exhibitions in the past twenty years with countless others since his first solo show in 1953.

Robert Colescott's Miss Liberty is a museum-quality painting that demonstrates the artist's most compelling and celebrated visual tropes, projecting a resplendent vision in a symphony of colors that is at once hopeful and critical. Arming himself with his brush, Colescott took aim at the complacent vaingloriousness of the contemporary American spirit. He sought to shake the foundations, not only of a nation, but of the art historical narrative that had reserved museum walls for white kings and European history painting. Colescott's black American queen is a majestic repudiation of the American Ideal, and one of the artist's most powerful and skillful manipulations of a culturally enshrined icon. Such complex narratives that crease and transpose the social fabric are rare in themselves; Robert Colescott's Miss Liberty is a work of art that does it with flair and wit. It is a masterpiece of contemporary painting and one of the finest pieces by the artist to ever come to market.

Saleroom notices

Please note that online bidding will not be available for lot 8. If you wish to bid on lot 8, Bonhams will require that you obtain a bank letter of reference confirming your ability to remit payment for any and all purchases. Please contact the specialist department at least one business day in advance of the auction date to arrange a telephone bid or an absentee bid by contacting [email protected] or on +1 (323) 578 3824, or our Client Service Office by emailing [email protected] or on +1 (323) 850 7500.

Additional information

News and stories