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    Auction Finds

    Robert Cromartie, an unknown African American artist

    The black soldier in his military greens had a definite swagger. Leaning back against a railing, a cigarette in his left hand, his stare direct, he exuded a “don’t mess with me” defiance.

    It was an interesting stance because this painting had been done during a period when black men weren’t supposed to stare daringly in the face of a military that didn’t want them there. The artist painted this black man more as he saw himself than how he was being treated.

    Portrait of an African American soldier by Robert Cromartie


    I saw the painting for the first time on the website for an upcoming auction at one of my favorite auction houses. I had never heard of the artist Robert Cromartie but I just loved that image. Then I came upon another of his paintings of an African American woman with the same attitude as the soldier. She had a face that looked like kin, that someone in every family who always resembled someone in somebody else’s family.

    The auction sheet described her as a ” seductive African American female.” She looked more dangerous to me, and if’ I’d meet her, I wouldn’t cross her. She looked like someone who partied heartily and dared you to say anything about how she lived her life.

    I could surmise a lot about the people in Cromartie’s paintings but could find very little about the artist himself. Neither could the auction house, which got five oil-on-canvas paintings from Cromartie’s daughters. The artwork had been stored in the garage, completely forgotten or their existence unknown. All were signed and most were dated in the 1950s. Four were figurative paintings of people, and the fourth was an abstract with the Cubist style of Picasso, whose works of that nature were influenced by African sculpture.

    “The paintings speak for themselves,” said Rob Goldstein, the art expert at Barry S. Slosberg Auctioneers in Philadelphia, which sold the works. “How can something so brilliant come from somebody (about whom) there is no information.”

    The daughters told him that their father was an engraver, Goldstein said, and they turned over his engraving tools, too. He found a 1960s catalog from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts among the family’s papers. Did Cromartie attend classes there at some point, Goldstein wondered. Unfortunately, the daughters knew little about their father’s artwork.

    Portrait of an African American woman by Robert Cromartie


    The frame on the soldier painting had a paper exhibition label with the number 7 on it and the woman had the number 9 indicating that they had been featured in an exhibit, Goldstein noted.

    Who was Robert Cromartie? Was he like the many other artists in local communities around the world who create art in their own small spaces and never reach the mainstream or just get lost in history? I’d love to know.

    At the auction, I wasn’t the only one enamored with Cromartie’s paintings. I knew that the prices would go way beyond what I was willing to pay for the soldier, the piece that spoke to me. Under heavy tit-for-tat bidding, the pieces sold from $500 to $1,000.

    Here are his paintings and the prices (which do not include the 15 percent buyer’s premium charged by the auction house as a commission). Descriptions are from the auction sheets:

    African American male by Robert Cromartie


    African American male, 1953, signed and dated by the artist. Graphite inscription twice on back: “RC.” $250.

    Cubist composition by Robert Cromartie


    Cubist composition, 1950, signed and dated by the artist. $500.

    Portrait of a draftsman by Robert Cromartie


    The auction house called this one “The Draftsman,” signed and dated (9/50) by the artist. $700.

    At right, portrait of an African American soldier, 1954, signed and dated by the artist. Notice “the cigarette, the swagger, the dynamic use of background in a Cubist way,” said Goldstein. $1,000. Click below to hear the bidding on the soldier painting.

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    At left, portrait of a seductive African American female, signed by the artist. Cromartie is “being very incisive about character,” Goldstein said. “It seems to come naturally to him as a painter.” $500.

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