How One Black Artist Made an Impact, From Portland to the World

The Life and Works of Robert Colescott

A painting of a face by Robert Colescott.Robert Colescott (1925 — 2009) was an undeniable force in the American and international art worlds throughout the 20th century. His bold, vibrant and wittily comic-styled paintings pull no punches, famously forcing the viewer to examine controversial subjects like racism, misogyny and the Black experience in America through familiar references to fine art, pop culture and historical figures and events. His brightly colored paintings often depicted figures with the characteristics of racist stereotypes, in deeply explicit situations, challenging the viewer to scrutinize the way they process such societal taboos — he thus forces us to ask the question: with what sort of internalized attitudes and beliefs do we view the world? 

Being such an internationally renowned artist and a significant name in contemporary Black history, Portland is proud to have once called Robert Colescott a resident; in fact, Portland is responsible for giving Colescott his professional start. He taught as an Associate Professor of Art at Portland State University from 1957 to 1966 and was then able to begin his career as a painter in earnest, thanks to the support of local gallery owner and philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer. 

A painting of two faces by Robert Colescott. 

A recent Colescott exhibit at the Portland Art Museum served as both a superbly exhaustive retrospective on the artist’s career, and as a thought-provoking conversation on how art can serve as a mirror, forcing self-examination and dialogue on uncomfortable topics like class, gender and especially — in the case of Colescott’s works — race. 


A painting about dancing by Robert Colescott. 

“Robert Colescott’s masterful paintings continue to remain relevant as we work through racial reckoning in this country. His paintings engage his viewers in an active dialogue as he prods us through the use of satire, taboos, as well as offering us some shade. His work invites us to hold many conflicting feelings in one painting while also encouraging us to understand that these multiplicities exist in many facets of our life,” says Grace Kook-Anderson, curator for the Portland Art Museum. “Through his rich work, Colescott has given us a platform to have some difficult conversations together and work through--around race, historical heritage, stereotypes, and our humanity.” 

Provenance is incredibly fortunate to have five Colescott pieces in our own collection; four paintings are on display in residence at downtown Portland’s Hotel Lucia, while our very first Colescott piece, Hunchback of Notre Dame, lives at our headquarters a few blocks away. Provenance’s President and CEO, Katherine Durant, discusses why she selected the art for the collection. “We loved the storytelling aspect of Robert Colescott’s paintings,” she said. “They aren’t just interesting and beautiful — they spur this important conversation on race and race relations.”  

Katy Durant and dog in front of a Robert Colescott painting. 

If you’d like to see our collection of original Colescott paintings for yourself, plan a visit to Hotel Lucia in Portland. It’s an ideal spot to start a conversation.