Amy Sherald - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, November 15, 2022 | Phillips

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  • In Amy Sherald’s 2011 portrait, Madame Noire, a Black woman in a blonde wig stares imperiously down at the viewer. Dressed in the costume of the “droogs” from Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, Sherald’s model subverts hegemonic narratives of class, sexuality, and respectability for Black women.


    Alex DeLarge in his iconic “droogs” costume. Film still from A Clockwork Orange, 1971, dir. Stabley Kubrick, costume design by Milena Canonero. Image: Pictorial Press / Alamy Stock Photo

    Madame Noire is an early example of the key stylistic elements that make up Sherald’s œuvre of portraiture. Her model, likely sourced on the streets of Baltimore, stands against a mottled red background, with subtle variation in texture built up in the method of her mentor, Grace Hartigan, a lengthy process in which she drips paint and turpentine on the canvas and lets the pigment “do what it do.”i The model’s skin is rendered in grisaille, using the artist’s signature combination of black and Naples yellow. Though she originally used this color combination for her model’s skin due to an aesthetic preference, her greyscale filter for Black skin has become the symbolic hallmark of her work. “Even if I painted them purple, they’d still be Black people,” she has said.ii By sidestepping realistic rendering of skin tones, Sherald can move her work past surface-level perceptions of racial difference, into a wider conversation of racial representation and what it means, culturally, to be Black.
    "When I first began to paint these portraits, I was really interested in portraying a more fantastical narrative, so costuming was a way for me to engage the idea of creating an alternate narrative extricated from the dominant historical narrative. Creating archetypes break away from this and allow for a space of reimagining."
    —Amy Sherald
    The costumes of Sherald’s models are just as significant as their greyscaled skintones. In Madame Noire, the model is dressed like the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge, and his gang of miscreants, the droogs. As Elena Lazic writes for the British Film Institute, Milena Canonero’s costume design for this film is an “eerily timeless” engagement with the film’s themes of class, money, and power. The bowler hat, wooden cane, and cricket codpiece are symbolic of an elite lifestyle, but on the working-class body of DeLarge, these accessories become “a mockery of the fair play, elegance, and integrity of the class they are associated with.”iii Furthermore, DeLarge’s upper-class accessories become weapons, as he uses his cane to attack people in the film, and the sexually provocative codpiece functions as a form of armor.

    By dressing her model in this costume, Sherald encourages her viewer to seek out similar subversions of class and sexuality in Madame Noire. The title of the work provides three overlapping courses of interpretation. Madame Noire could be a reference to Black lifestyle media brand, MadameNoire; to Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire; or, perhaps, to historical Black sex workers, particularly, brothel owners, or madams.



    [top] Detail of the present work
    [bottom] Film still from A Clockwork Orange, 1971. Image: Pictorial Press / Alamy Stock Photo

    Most directly, MadameNoire is also the name of a digital Black lifestyle magazine founded in 2010, the year before Sherald made the present work, that brands itself as a “daily source of news and inspiration for smart, stylish Black women.”iv MadameNoire both empowers Black women and subverts racist stereotypes by asserting that they are smart and stylish. Yet at the same time, the magazine’s word choices of “smart” and “stylish” recall the pervasiveness of respectability politics in the Black community. 

    Respectability is a term historians use to describe how Black people (and specifically, Black women) have distanced themselves from racist stereotypes since the late 1800s to gain acceptance in wider society.v As social justice writer Odochi Ibe explains, the pursuit of respectability comes in many forms; some efforts, such as increasing literacy or access to employment, generally improve one’s quality of life, while others, such as conforming one’s appearance to white beauty standards, can be a source of stress. While respectability can be empowering for some, it can be disempowering for others, as it limits what Blackness is, and how one can be 


    Madame C.J. Walker, c. 1914. Image: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family, Artwork: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

    A classic success story for respectability comes in the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a Black businesswoman and philanthropist who was the first self-made female millionaire in the United States. In the 1910s, Walker made her fortune in cosmetics and haircare products marketed towards Black women. In addition to supplying products that filled a need that the white beauty industry ignored, Walker provided jobs and training for hundreds of thousands of young Black women through the Walker Beauty School. 


    At a time when empowering, respectful work was hard to come by, Madam C.J. Walker’s business had a real impact on the everyday lives of the women she employed. Through work with Madam C.J. Walker, young Black women could define their identities on their own terms, and refashion a narrative of Black womanhood beyond stereotypes. Sherald does the same in her work, using costumes and props to call our racial presumptions into question, and offer alternative histories.

    "Why can't I make up my own characters and paint the people I want to see in the world? I'm depicting the many people who existed in history but whose presence was never documented."
    —Amy Sherald

    Just as Madame Noire invokes Madam C.J. Walker, she also invokes another kind of madam: a brothel owner. Her bowler hat and cane doubly reference A Clockwork Orange and the stereotypical outfit of a pimp; the codpiece provocatively draws the eye towards her pelvis. Sex work, while not considered “respectable,” has historically been another path for women, especially women of color, to take agency over their own lives and become financially independent.


    Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Femme de maison blonde [Blonde sex worker], 1894, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

    While Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune in cosmetics and haircare, madam Vina Fields made hers as a brothel owner. Active from the 1870s to the 1910s, Vina Fields began her career with eight workers and a servant; she was the only Black madam in Chicago with a servant, which was an early sign of her success.vii By the height of her career, she directed sixty workers and was one of the wealthiest Black people in Chicago.viii Like Madam C.J. Walker, she used her fortune to care for her family and to help other Black women provide for their loved ones as well.

    The character of Madame Noire crosses and recrosses the line between respectable and illicit Black femininity. She is both real and fantastic, a symbolically rich example of Sherald’s signature portrait style. Madame Noire “embodies the depth and weight of black history, along with an aesthetic of re-imagination or self-fashioning of that history.”ix

    i Amy Sherald, quoted in Marlisa Sanders, “Amy Sherald, A Second Life,” The International Review of African American Art, 2013, online.
    ii Amy Sherald, in conversation with Russell Tovey and Robert Diament, Talk Art [podcast], September 27, 2022, 27:18.
    iii Elena Lazic, “A Clockwork Orange and Fashion: Why The Droogs Never Go Out of Style,” The British Film Institute, April 2, 2019, online.
    iv MadameNoire, “About MadameNoire,” accessed October 6, 2022, online.
    v Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920, Harvard University Press, 1993, online
    vi Odochi Ibe, “Playing the Game of Respectability Politics, But At What Cost?” verywellmind, February 15, 2022, online.
    vii Cynthia M. Blair, I’ve Got To Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010. 
    viii Ibid.
    ix Amy Sherald, quoted in Elaine Sexton, “Making Mirrors: A Micro-Interview with Amy Sherald,” Tulepo Quarterly, October 14, 2016, online.

    • Provenance

      Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016

    • Exhibited

      Sag Harbor, Richard Demato Fine Arts, Amy Sherald, May 28, 2011
      Stockton, LH Horton Jr Gallery, San Joaquin Delta College, Themes of Black Identity In America, February 27–March 21, 2014
      Baltimore, Creative Alliance at The Patterson, The Red Fantastic, January 30–February 21, 2015
      Charlottesville, Second Street Gallery, Off the Chain: American Art Unfettered, May 1–May 30, 2015

    • Literature

      "Amy Sherald," Poets and Artists, no. 27, Fall 2011, n.p. (illustrated)
      Marlisa Sanders, "Amy Sherald, A Second Life," The International Review of African American Art, 2013, online (illustrated; installation view with the artist in the artist's studio illustrated)
      Hycide Magazine, The Artist Issue [Redux], January 2013 (illustrated on the cover)
      Jack Livingston, "Creative Alliance’s 2015 Resident Artist Group Exhibition: The Red Fantastic," BmoreArt, February 7, 2015, online (illustrated)
      Juxtapositions, Maryland Institute College of Art, December 2015, p. 7 (illustrated on the cover)
      Elaine Sexton, "Making Mirrors: A Micro-Interview with Amy Sherald," Tupelo Quarterly, October 14, 2016, 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.

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Property from a Private European Collection


Madame Noire

signed and dated "Amy Sherald 2011 Amy Sherald" on the reverse
oil on canvas
54 3/8 x 43 1/4 in. (138 x 109.7 cm)
Painted in 2011.

Full Cataloguing

$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Contact Specialist

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2022