Robert H. Colescott, born August 26, 1925 and died June 4, 2009, was an American painter. He is known for satirical genre and crowd subjects, often conveying his exuberant, comical, or bitter reflections on being African-American. He studied with Fernand Léger in Paris. According to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Colescott was “the first African-American artist to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1997.” According to Askart.com and Artcyclopedia.com, his work is in many major public collections, including (in addition to the Albright-Knox) those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
In his George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page From an American History Textbook, he re-imagined Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting of the Revolutionary War hero, putting Carver, a pioneering African American agricultural chemist, at the helm of a boat loaded with black cooks, maids, fishermen and minstrels. With equally transgressive humor and an explosive style, he also created his own versions of Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Édouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.
Colescott was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and served in Europe until the end of World War II. His tour of duty took him to Paris, then the capital of the art world and a city that was hospitable to African American artists. Back home, he enrolled at UC Berkeley, which granted him a bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting in 1949. He spent the following year in Paris, studying with French artist Fernand Léger, then returned to UC Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in 1952.
Colescott moved to the Northwest after graduation and began teaching at Portland State University. He was on staff there from 1957 to 1966. But he had a life-changing experience in 1964 when he took a sabbatical with a study grant from the American Research Center in Cairo, Egypt. He returned to Portland for a year but went back to Egypt as a visiting professor at the American University of Cairo from 1966 to 1967. When war broke out, he and his family (then-wife Sally Dennett and their son Dennett Colescott, born in Portland, Oregon in 1963) moved to Paris for three years. They returned to California in 1970 and he spent the next 15 years painting and teaching art at Cal State, Stanislaus, UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute. Colescott accepted a position as a visiting professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1983 and joined the staff in 1985, moving up the academic ladder until 1998, when he became a professor emeritus.
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