A 1956 painting by French modernist Pierre Soulages that once belonged to the poet, intellectual and former president of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor, who died in 2001, sold on Saturday at French auction house Caen Enchères for €1.5 million ($1.8 million), against an estimate of €800,000.
Senghor, an advocate of modern art during his tenure as Senegal’s president from 1960-80, purchased the abstract painting titled “Painting 81 x 60 cm, December 3, 1956,” directly from the artist during a studio visit in Paris the same year the painting was completed. The canvas features the centenarian painter’s signature black impasto brushstrokes on neutral ground works made in the 1950s, prior to his outrenoir period in the late 1970s.
The work was long displayed at Senghor’s office in Verson, France, where her and his wife, Colette, lived in the 1980s following the end of his presidency, according to Caen. It passed onto Senghor’s sister-in-law in 2019 following Colette’s death, and then to the anonymous Caen auction seller, a non-relative of the Senghors.
In addition to its impressive ownership record, the work was showcased in a solo exhibition dedicated to Soulages in 1974 at the Dynamic Museum in Dakar. The establishment of the Dynamic museum was one of a series of cultural projects under Senghor’s leadership, inaugurated in March 1966, six years after he country’s official independence from French rule. In post-colonial Senegal, Senghor was a major contributor to the development of the country as a key centre for visual arts in Africa—also founding the First World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966.
An avid supports of both modern art movements in Europe as well as African art, Senghor described Soulages’s work in his 1958 Lettres Nouvelles: “The first time I saw a painting by Pierre Soulages it was a shock. I received a blow in the pit of my stomach that made me wobble, like the affected boxer who suddenly breaks down. This is exactly how I felt when I first saw a “Dan” mask.”
In 1974, in a speech at the Soulages exhibition in Dakar, the Senegalese president described the French artist’s work further as “brother of Negro-African art not by imitation but by nature.” Years earlier, Senghor analyzed Soulages’s work in an article titled “The Poetry of Pierre Soulage,” writing, “For the traditional Negro-African painters, it is black which naturally expresses life, while white expresses Death.”