Wilhelm Schimmel’s sculpture of an American eagle

Andrew Holter, American Decorative Arts specialist, on the mystique behind Schimmel’s monumental homage to the Land of the Free

In 1782, the United States of America adopted the bald eagle as its national bird and symbol. Celebrated for its impressive wingspan, speed, agility, fortitude and elegance, the majestic creature not surprisingly became a major focus for artists of the nascent country.

As a metaphor for freedom and the promise of a new life, the eagle proved an attractive focal point for Wilhelm Schimmel (1817–1890), a German immigrant who came to the United States in the 1860s to reside in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. As American Decorative Arts specialist Andrew Holter explains, Schimmel often paid for his room and board with families around Pennsylvania with the carved pine, gesso and paint-decorated animals that are his legacy.

Of the 100 or so surviving aquiline figures by Schimmel, this monumental spread-winged eagle is one of the largest and most remarkable. From the intricate craftsmanship evidenced in the cross-hatching on the body to the carefully painted feather tips on each wing, this magnificent figure is worthy of its proud bearing.

With its arched head, puffed chest and accentuated yellow bill, Schimmel’s 26-inch high bird testifies to the burgeoning strength of mid-19th-century America. It also has an earthy soulfulness that counterbalances its unmistakable majesty.

Wilhelm Schimmel’s monumental carved, painted and polychrome-decorated spread-wing eagle will be offered in the American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art sale on 20 September 2016 at Christie’s New York.