Amy Sherald - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 18, 2022 | Phillips
  • "I paint people who I want to see exist in the world, but then I also want to create a narrative that's extricated from a dominant historical narrative."
    —Amy Sherald

    An exemplar from the artist’s mature oeuvre, Amy Sherald’s She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves, 2017, was underway upon her as Michelle Obama’s portraitist, as illustrated in the announcement by The New York Times in October that year. Set against a flat lilac backdrop, the present work depicts a confidently posed figure gazing directly at the viewer. Weaving memory, history, and imagination, She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves embodies Sherald’s trailblazing practice that reimagines the genre of portraiture “to tease out unexpected narratives and situate Black heritage centrally in the story of American art.”i



    As with the dress she chose for the former First Lady, the figure’s outfit in She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves looks to the quilts created by the women of Gee’s Bend, a small African-American community in Alabama. Sherald, whose mother is from Alabama, felt a profound connection to the Gee’s Bend quilters after seeing the Whitney Museum’s related exhibition in the early 2000s. “The significance of those patterns is something that never left me,” she explained.ii Conjuring the stitched “bar” design of notable quilters like Loretta Pettway and Annie Mae Young, the patterned top also echoes the colorful compositions of Stanley Whitney, whose work similarly cites Gee’s Bend quilting. Through this evocation, Sherald both elevates the medium of quilting to high art and sheds light on a community of Black female artists whose profound contributions to American visual and material culture are underrecognized, illuminating “a craft that is oftentimes forgotten though it be a huge part of a lot of family traditions...something that could be not only for [the Black community], but also for the American people as well.”iii


    [left] Loretta Pettway, "Bars" work-clothes quilt, 1970s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: Pitkin Studio/ Art Resource, NY, Artwork:© Loretta Pettway Bennett/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [right] Faith Ringgold, The Bitter Nest, Part II: The Harlem Renaissance Party, 1988, Smithsonian American Museum, Washington, D.C. Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2022 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

    “I want people to be able to imagine a life outside of the circumscribed stereotype...[and] imagination allows you to bend the rules of the temporal world. I just want to share that a more beautiful world exists beyond the confines of your environment.”
    —Amy Sherald

    Sherald explains that by rendering the figure's skin in her signature grisaille, or grayscale, she subordinates the notion of color as race “by removing ‘color’ but still portraying racialized bodies as privileged subjects to be viewed through portraiture. Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder.”iv In She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves, the refined grayscale modelling of light and shadow evokes the aesthetic of vintage daguerreotypes—a profound influence on the artist’s painterly practice. “It was after the invention of the camera,” she explained, “that we had agency to author our own narratives. This enabled a connection to our personal history. One of love, grace, beauty and common lives fully lived. That was a huge affirmation for me.”v  



    Sherald’s mature practice is marked by the flat monochrome realms that her realist figures occupy, a technique that literally and metaphorically abstracts a sense of time and place. Departing from her early speckled backgrounds, the flat backdrop reflects how Sherald “solved the problem of space,” as she said, “because I’ve always been a painter that just wanted to focus on the figure.”vi In She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves, the lilac field presents a dramatic contrast, propelling the figure forward out of the picture plane. The lighthearted, mythical evocations of the lilac background capture the heart of Sherald’s artistic program: “My work is about extending identity beyond grotesque stereotypes and caricatures, opening it up to the imagination. These paintings exist in the liminal space between fantasy and reality.”vii

    "When I’m reading, I sometimes come across sentences that are just perfect…I find some of [my paintings] illustrate these exact moments that women have written in history, from Lucille Clifton and Gwendolyn Brooks, and different poets."
    —Amy Sherald

    A lover of poetry, Sherald culls her titles from many disparate sources. Here the artist looked to a line in “We’re the only colored people,” a vignette in poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha, 1953, which explores a Black couple’s experience at the cinema. In the verse, the female protagonist is enchanted by a technicolor film and savors the moment as a brief escape from the White gaze that defines their reality. The composition presents a remarkable reverb with Brooks’ narrative: the figure’s gaze (an iconic motif of Sherald’s), the technicolor attire, and the lilac background which recalls Sherald’s own love of cinematography by alluding to the influence of Wes Anderson’s films on her work. Here Sherald’s visual lexicon thus shines through with a striking dialogic force that teeters between the textual and visual, past and present, real and visionary.



    “Amy Sherald: the heart of the matter…,” Hauser & Wirth, New York, press release, September 10, 2019.
    ii Amy Sherald, quoted in “Virtual Conversation: The Obama Portraits—Featuring Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald,” The Art Institute of Chicago, video, June 18, 2021, online.
    iii  Ibid.
    iv Amy Sherald, quoted in Victoria L. Valentine, “Portrait of an Artist: Baltimore-based Amy Sherald Wins Smithsonian's Outwin Boochever Competition,” Culture Type, March 26, 2016, online.
    v Amy Sherald, quoted in Victoria L. Valentine, “Portrait Artist Amy Sherald Discussed Her Practice at the National Gallery of Art: ‘I Paint American People. Black People Doing Stuff,’” Culture Type, November 7, 2017, online.
    vi Amy Sherald, quoted in “Virtual Conversation: The Obama Portraits—Featuring Artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald,” The Art Institute of Chicago, video, June 18, 2021, online.
    vii Amy Sherald, quoted in Mary Carole McCauley, “Baltimorean Amy Sherald Wins First Prize in Smithsonian Portrait Context,” The Baltimore Sun, March 11, 2016, online.

    • Provenance

      Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017

    • Literature

      Robin Pogrebin, "After a Late Start, an Artist’s Big Break: Michelle Obama’s Official Portrait," The New York Times, October 23, 2017, online (installation view of the present work in progress in the artist's studio illustrated)
      Andrew Goldstein, “Amy Sherald, Michelle Obama’s Chosen Portraitist, Is Now a Bona Fide Art-Market Success Story,” Artnet News, December 6, 2017, online (illustrated; titled as Untitled)
      David Morgan, “Portraitist Amy Sherald,” CBS News, February 18, 2018, online (illustrated)
      Grace Ebert, “Remarkable Portraits by Artist Amy Sherald Render Subjects in Grayscale Against Vibrant Backdrops,” Colossal, June 5, 2020, online (illustrated)

    • Artist Biography

      Amy Sherald

      Amy Sherald reflects on the contemporary African American experiences through her arresting and unearthly paintings. Her grisaille portraits call to the surface unexpected narratives and unfamiliar experiences of the every day, encouraging viewers to reconsider contemporary portrayals and accepted notions of race, representation, and the Black American experience.

      Sherald’s paintings are at once vivid and unassuming, offering silent, unflinching meditations on contemporary lived experience. She renders her sitters in a grisaille tone to disarm preconceived notions and misconceptions of Black identity. Vibrant, mute, and surreal in the ordinariness they portray, her work offers the viewer silence for placid and direct reflection. Sherald’s work has been widely acclaimed as the artist was the first woman and the first African American to win the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and in 2019, the museum unveiled her official portrait of First Lady Michele Obama. Sherald’s work has been shown in solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis; the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR; and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, GA.

      View More Works


She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves

signed and dated "Amy Sherald 2017 ♥" on the reverse
oil on canvas
54 1/8 x 43 in. (137.5 x 109.2 cm)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $1,482,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Global Managing Director and Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1278

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Associate Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 18 May 2022