As a founder in 1912 of the Taos Society of Artists, Eanger Irving Couse is best remembered for his intimate depictions of Southwest Indians painted with a high finish in a distinct style of his own. As summarized by the art historian, Mary Carroll Nelson, "Couse's work contains certain recognizable characteristics: a sparsely clad Indian crouches in profile or squats on his heels; he is lit by firelight, strong sidelight, or moonlight that dramatizes his muscular form; he is engaged in a domestic act, such as drum-making, bead-drilling, wall-painting, or praying; he has a pensive withdrawn expression and is sealed in privacy. Details of gear are used for pictorial effect rather than strict accuracy. Couse was always the painter, not the reporter. Yet he was so involved with the Taos people that he conveyed a feeling of contact with their sacred rituals. For them, daily tasks, however repetitive, are made significant and dignified by their association with prayer, in the form of a song or an action." (The Legendary Artists of Taos, New York, 1980, p. 47)
From his earliest days as an artist, Couse sketched Indian subjects, starting with the Chippewa and Ojibwa Indians of his birthplace, Saginaw, Michigan. While still a teenager, he began his formal studies, first at the Chicago Art Institute and later at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1886 he traveled to Paris, where he enrolled in the Académie Julian under the tutelage of the celebrated academician, William Adolphe Bouguereau (fig. 1). After nearly a decade in France, Couse painted the popular subjects of the time, chiefly scenes of the European peasantry and landscapes. In 1889, while in Paris, he married fellow art student Virginia Walker, a rancher's daughter from Washington near the Oregon border. Two years later, they traveled together to the Walker family's ranch in Klikitat County for a year-long visit. While there, Couse painted among the Klikitat, Yakima, and Umatilla tribes and produced his first oils of American Indians, one of which was destined for the Paris Salon when the couple returned to France. Describing these early images, Ms. Nelson writes that "these small, rosy-sky scenes are charmingly deft, with painterly brushwork. Slightly more sketchy than his later work, their deep pastel hues are reminiscent of the Barbizon school in France. In fact, there is a strong link between the vision of the Barbizon painters and that of Irving Couse. Both attempted to paint 'simple folk' in a natural setting and both embued [sic] the model with heroic form." (The Legendary Artists of Taos, p. 42)
Couse returned to the United States in 1898 and settled in New York. Most likely at the recommendation of his friend Ernest Blumenschein, Couse traveled west to Taos in 1902 and arrived in June during an unseasonable snow storm. "When the curtain of snow lifted Couse saw for the first time the copper colored Indian he had been looking for, the vast intense blue of the New Mexican sky, a valley and mountains more beautiful, more perfect, than he had ever dreamed existed. He saw, too, the quaintly old-world town of San Fernando de Taos." (L.M. Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, p. 79) Relatively undisturbed by earlier events, the Pueblo culture in Taos continued to flourish in harmony with their surroundings and the people still practiced many of their centuries-old customs and rituals. The peaceful, amiable nature and the rich colorful life of the local Indians satisfied all of Couse's artistic and personal needs.
The Harvest Song, impressive in its scale and high-keyed palette, imbues the exotic life of the American Indian with a measure of the dignity and quiet spirituality that Couse appreciated in his subject--qualities that inform the best of his art throughout his career. When Couse first ventured to depict the local American Indian in Michigan, "he experienced considerable trouble in allaying their many and strong superstitions. One of these beliefs was that if a person's likeness was transferred to canvas, or to any other medium, that person's soul would go with the likeness and the individual would die. His first model was an old squaw whom the tribe did not consider very valuable. She sat for half an hour with her hands over her face and it was thus that he painted her. When the rest of tribe found that she did not die or suffer any ill effects they willingly consented to model for him." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 77) The models in The Harvest Song appear undisturbed by Couse's presence as they go about their ritual with quiet yet intent and fixed gazes. In this picture, we see Couse's sympathetic approach to his subjects as he sought to depict them most direct and honest way. "More than in any other aspect except color, Couse was interested in the authenticity of the Indian he was to paint. The more tenaciously they clung to the customs of their forebears, the more genuine they, and therefore the pictures of them, would be." (Pioneer Artists of Taos, p. 80)
The present painting was prominently displayed in Couse's home and according to a letter from his grandson to the present owner, the artist held a special fondness for the painting. The Harvest Song exhibits the finest aspects of Couse's best works, portraying a ceremonial scene in a personal and powerfully simple manner that conveys its universality. Couse depicts his subjects with remarkable attention to detail and a high level of accuracy, but he retains the romantic and mystical qualities that remain the hallmarks of his distinct style.
This painting will be included in Virginia Couse Leavitt's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.