Titus Kaphar - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips
  • "Art history helped me to realize that painting is a visual language where everything in the painting is meaningful, is important. It's coded."
    —Titus Kaphar

    Marie Guillemine-Benoist, Portrait of a Black Woman (Portrait of Madeleine), 1800. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

    Looking directly to perhaps the most recognized Black female sitter in the Western canon of art, Titus Kaphar’s Untitled III is a striking example of the artist’s portraits of historically marginalized figures rendered in tar. Painted in 2015, the present work reimagines Marie Guillemine-Benoist’s Portrait of a Black Woman, 1800, in the permanent collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris. Cropping the composition to ostensibly hone in on the intimacy of the sitter’s gaze, Kaphar subverts his otherwise faithful representation, concealing her visage under viscous swaths of tar. This meticulous eradication of her features stands in striking contrast to the refined painterly handling of her pearl-colored headscarf and elegant drapery.

    "I have this love for representational painting and this love for post-modernist gestures, these actions that disrupt the history of art marking."
    —Titus Kaphar

    Kaphar imbues the interpretive meaning in his works through their very materiality. As the artist has astutely observed on the historical tradition of painting, Black figures “are often pushed to the corners of the compositions. They’re hidden. They’re in the shadows.”i  His thick, impasto layers of tar denote the absence of Black figures in the historical narrative. The series is most widely recognized with his reimaginings of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves as emancipated figures sitting for portraits. In the unique case of Untitled III, the artist tars the countenance of one of the most “visible” Black figures in the art historical canon, ultimately revealing an alternative reading of the famous 19th century portrait.


    Édouard Manet, Olympia (renamed Laure), 1863. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

    Exhibited at the Salon of 1800, Benoist’s portrait was met with contention for its jarring subject matter—the meticulously rendered, half-nude Black female sitter garbed in the colors of the French Revolution’s tricolore. Embodying an archetype reinforced through the work’s ambiguous title, Benoist’s unnamed figure became a symbol in art history of the abolition of slavery and women’s emancipation in France.

    "By and large, the representation of black people and the history of Western painting is enslaved, in servitude or impoverished...And so what we have are these representations of black people that don't reflect their humanity."
    —Titus Kaphar


    In Untitled III, Kaphar encapsulates Kerry James Marshall’s argument on the overt absence of the Black figure in the history of Western art, as exhibited in the figure’s very facture: “At the same time that I’m talking about visibility and invisibility and that I am using the concepts of blackness, the figure seems to stay the same. The figure remains essentially black in every circumstance that you see it.”ii  In the present work, Kaphar’s erasure of the sitter conversely reveals the artifice of her historical visibility, guiding our awareness to her objectification as a 19th century sociopolitical archetype. Meanwhile, he shifts our gaze towards a more intimate human subjectivity—the figure’s identity masked by her Blackness.


    [left] Detail of the present lot. [right] Detail of Marie Guillemine-Benoist, Portrait of a Black Woman (Portrait of Madeleine), 1800. Musée du Louvre, Paris, Image: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

    In the years after Kaphar took up the subject, Benoist’s sitter has been identified as Madeleine, an emancipated slave from Guadeloupe who came to France as the servant of Benoist’s brother-in-law. Becoming exponentially visible after featuring in a 2018 music video by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Madeleine, along with other iconic Black female models in the art historical canon, was identified in the groundbreaking show Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019. 



    i Titus Kaphar, quoted in “Titus Kaphar: How Can We Address Centuries of Racism in Art?,” National Public Radio: TED Radio Hour, November 10, 2017, online.
    ii Kerry James Marshall, quoted in Victoria L. Valentine, “‘The Figure Remains Essentially Black in Every Circumstance’: Kerry James Marshall Previews His Master Paintings at MCA Chicago,” Culture Type, May 2, 2016, online.

    • Provenance

      Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016

    • Artist Biography

      Titus Kaphar

      Titus Kaphar’s work questions the nature of history and its representations in the past and today. By altering the materiality of his paintings, sculptures, and installations, Kaphar subverts conventional understandings of historical representations and exposes the uncomfortable and troubling realities of the racism in America’s past. Kaphar’s examinations of historical representations and the omissions of such representations encourage viewers to question their own relationships to history and understandings of the past. He strives to dislodge history from the past and to promote its relevance in the world today. 

      Kaphar’s work has received considerable acclaim, and his paintings have graced two covers of Time magazine. He is the recipient of a 2018 MacArthur Fellowship and his work is represented in such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, and the Perez Art Museum Miami. He lives and works in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Untitled III

oil and tar on canvas, mounted on panel
60 x 48 in. (152.4 x 121.9 cm)
Executed in 2015.

Full Cataloguing

$300,000 - 400,000 

Sold for $1,058,500

Contact Specialist

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


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021