Amy Sherald - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, November 17, 2021 | Phillips
  • An Ascendancy of Grace: Amy Sherald’s Welfare Queen 


    Imani Perry
    Hughes-Rogers Professor

    Princeton University


    "Still; quiet; with a smile, ever so slight, at the eyes so that Life will flow into and not by you.  And you can gather, as it passes, the essences, the overtones, the tints, the shadows; draw understanding to yourself."
    —Marita Bonner, “On Being Young, A Woman, and Colored" 


    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.







    I’d heard of her, however, through friends. Sherald had painted someone I knew. I’d heard she attended an art school with which I was very familiar through family. She had a reputation for excellence, but my encounter with her work was more than simple admiration. It was complete captivation. I felt I had to have a piece by her, and I wanted this one in particular. That said, I was hardly in a position to begin collecting art. My budget was tight, my responsibilities to others were high. But I shyly approached Sherald about purchasing the piece over time. Her generosity was heart-warming and frankly life changing. It was the first significant piece of art I ever owned. 


    I learned the title of the piece was Welfare Queen. It was a term that circulated quite frequently in the 1980s. Back then it was used to conjure up images of Black women who were seen as lazy, feeding off the state, bearing children irresponsibly, and just generally acting as a burden on society. Political speeches, news reports, and everyday chatter talked about the problem of “Welfare Queens.”




    Linda Taylor, 1944. Washington State Archives, Washington, D.C.



    There was a woman, Linda Taylor, whose unusual story of collecting welfare checks in multiple states became a public warning. 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? 


    We saw our mothers and grandmothers toil and serve. But the world apparently didn’t. 


    Thank goodness for Black women’s literature of that period. It told a much different story than what we heard in public. I devoured books by women such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Paule Marshall. And I mention that here because the feeling of looking at this “Welfare Queen” painting, many years later, was akin to opening up the world of those books for me. Inside those pages, the fullness of character and creativity among Black women, including poor Black women, was revealed. Likewise, this painting is masterful in revealing so much inside the layers.  This “welfare queen” is a beauty queen, adorned in white gloves, bejeweled, bearing a sash that announces her regality. Look to the background, for example. It is a red tapestry, a marvelous contrast and context to the elegant figure with her blue-black skin and golden crown. Her face is placid, yet the brushstrokes remind you that still waters run deep. Her skin matters. In American society, dark skinned women are deemed less beautiful and less valuable. And yet, just as Sherald turned the welfare queen stereotype on its head with a dignified depiction, she has transformed the popular negative meanings applied to deep dark skin. It is not flat nor is it unattractive. Here, it is enchanting.







    What at first glance appears to be a simple composition, has a remarkable complexity. 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. I wasn’t surprised in the least when first lady Obama selected Amy Sherald as her portraitist. The intelligence of Sherald’s work is magnificent, as is its beauty. I must admit, it is difficult to part with Welfare Queen. It was my companion through writing four books, and a direct inspiration for my next: South to America: A Journey Below the Mason Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. I literally faced it as I typed through many nights.


    But now, it is my hope 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. I did not grow up in a home with original artwork, but I had the good fortune of having parents who took me to museums constantly. I loved the magic of discovery that happened in museums. When looking at Welfare Queen, I have often imagined what it would have been like to be 8 years old standing before it. I know it would have made my heart swell and tears spring to my eyes, because it still does so today. 


    October 2021

    • Provenance

      Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Baltimore, Galerie Myrtis, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe: The Contemporary Response, September 27, 2012 – January 19, 2013
      Charlottesville, Second Street Gallery, Amy Sherald. Off the Chain: American Art Unfettered, May 1-30, 2015

    • Literature

      Joan Cox, "Amy Sherald, In Depth,", November 29, 2012, online
      Sarah Cascone, "The Obamas Choose Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald to Paint Their Official Portraits for the Smithsonian," Artnet News, October 13, 2017, online (illustrated)
      Sarah Cascone, "‘There Is So Much You Go Through Just Trying to Make It’: Amy Sherald on How She Went From Obscurity to a Museum Survey (and the White House)," Artnet News, June 20, 2018, online (illustrated)
      Victoria Camblin, "Amy Sherald: Pictures of American Life," Art Papers, August 6, 2018, 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

Property of a Private East Coast Collector


Welfare Queen

signed and dated "Amy Sherald Amy Sherald 2012" on the reverse
oil on canvas
54 x 43 1/8 in. (137.2 x 109.5 cm)
Painted in 2012.

Full Cataloguing

$1,200,000 - 1,800,000 

Sold for $3,902,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
New York Head of Department & Head of Auctions
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 November 2021