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Thunder Birds

Thunder Birds
signed 'E-I-Couse- N-A-' (lower left)
oil on canvas
35 x 46 in. (88.9 x 116.8 cm.)
Painted in 1927.
The artist.
Estate of the above.
Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, acquired from the above.
Estate of the artist, Taos, New Mexico, acquired from the above, 1936.
Robert Freeman, circa 1960.
Wunderlich Gallery, New York, 1986.
(Probably) Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Omaha World-Herald, December 2, 1928, p. 6, illustrated.
New York, National Academy of Design, Winter Exhibition, November 29-December 18, 1927, no. 210.
New York, Grand Central Art Galleries, First Annual Members Prize Exhibition, 1928, no. 34.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 123rd Annual Exhibition, January 29-March 18, 1928, no. 84.
New York, Grand Central Art Galleries, Second Annual Members Prize Exhibition, 1929, no. 25.
New York, National Academy of Design, Special Exhibition of Members' Work, November 25-December 21, 1930, no. 114.
Further Details
This painting will be included as catalogue number 1966 in Virginia Couse Leavitt's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

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Lot Essay

A founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, Eanger Irving Couse “was so involved with the Taos people that he conveyed a feeling of contact with their sacred rituals.” As art historian Mary Carroll Nelson describes, “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) Couse’s striking masterwork Thunder Birds of 1927 epitomizes this sense of spirituality omnipresent throughout the daily life of the Taos Indians, with depictions of the venerated Thunderbird repeated on the pottery, drum, moccasins and wall decoration. With its large scale and high level of finish underscoring the painting’s importance, Thunder Birds represented Couse in the nation’s leading art exhibitions in the years immediately following its completion, including at the National Academy of Design in 1927 and 1930 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1928.

“Thunderbirds permeate the spiritual world of widespread Native groups,” Dr. Bridget Alex writes. “The spirits’ particular attributes and stories vary by tribe and even family line…Inhabiting the sky, Thunderbirds act as powerful, life-giving spirits who command storm clouds, which bring spring rains. Their eyes shoot lighting and their wing beats issue thunder…the spirits will intervene on behalf of earthly people, but also expect veneration, prayers, and gifts.” (“Rulers of the Upper Realm, Thunderbirds are Powerful Native Spirits,” Audubon Magazine, November 30, 2020) As such, while many of the sacred stories about these spiritual beings are kept confidential by the Native tribes, artifacts celebrating Thunderbirds span across the American continent in various media dating back 4,000 years. With their prevalence in Native cultures, the Thunderbird has also become an important motif recurring in paintings of the American West–perhaps most notably adopted by Maynard Dixon as his signature artist’s device.

The present painting depicts an astounding array of artifacts featuring Thunderbird imagery, varying in style across the ceramic, beaded and painted applications of the symbology. These objects were collected by Couse and his wife Virginia, often from the Taos Indian Curio Shop partially owned by fellow Taos Society founder Bert Geer Phillips. Indeed, the present work includes a pair of Cheyenne moccasins purchased from Phillips in 1902, which are still in the Couse collection. Virginia described, “We got a pair of Cheyenne moccasins from him for $3.00 that are the finest thing in the way of moccasins I ever saw. They are turquoise blue with the Cheyenne eagle embroidered in red on them.” (as quoted in V.C. Leavitt, Eanger Irving Couse: The Life and Times of an American Artist, 1866-1936, Norman, Oklahoma, 2019, p. 175) The composition’s central piece of pottery with the prominent eagle design also can still be seen today at the Couse studio in Taos.

In creating his painting Thunder Birds, Couse carefully positioned these meaningful artifacts alongside a posed model and photographed the scene. The model is Ben Lujan, who Couse met on his first visit to Taos in 1902, when Lujan was just ten years old. The artist’s granddaughter Virginia Couse Leavitt explains, “Ben Lujan continued to pose for Couse and became more and more a part of the artist’s family. His father was an Apache named Sandoval (Star Road), a rebel sub war chief under Geronimo, who took a passing fancy to a young girl from Taos Pueblo, a girl of Pawnee ancestry...he nevertheless held many important positions at the Pueblo and would become one of the highly respected elders. According to his son, Eliseo, Ben viewed the Couses as his adoptive parents. He posed for Couse for thirty-four years until the artist’s death, and the close family ties lasted well into the next generations.” (Eanger Irving Couse: The Life and Times of an American Artist, 1866-1936, pp. 199-200)

As epitomized by his masterful Thunder Birds, Couse’s art uniquely combines this personal connection Couse developed with his Native American neighbors and his keen interest in their cultural artifacts with an Academician’s attention to compositional design, color and form. Here, his precise placement of each object centers both figure and mythological symbol at the forefront of the viewer’s attention. Couse then heightens his careful arrangement via sharp lines and bright colors on the key elements of the Thunderbird pot and moccasins, contrasted by more muted colors and gradations of shadows in the surrounding areas. Indeed, as Leavitt reflects, “Couse approached his canvas foremost as a work of art in which formal considerations were primary…His choice of the American Indian as subject, however, reflected his conviction that Indians were the one uniquely American subject available to this country’s figure painters.” (Eanger Irving Couse: The Life and Times of an American Artists, 1866-1936, p. 219) As a result, his best works, including Thunder Birds, captivate as both finely designed paintings by a master of his craft as well as profound memories capturing the spirit of Native tradition.

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