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form; he is engaged in a domestic act, such as drum-making, bead-drilling, wall-painting, or praying; he has a pensive withdrawn expression and is sealed in privacy.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) Prior to his years in Taos, Couse produced a number of major works which already established the major themes of his career, among them is this imposing work, The Medicine Man of 1897. It is one of only a few compositions that he painted in Washington State during the brief time he lived near the migratory tribes native to the Northwest.
From the onset of his career, Couse sketched Indian subjects, beginning with the Chippewa and Ojibwa Indians of his birthplace, Saginaw, Michigan. While still a teenager, he commenced 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 France, where he enrolled in the Academie Julien under the tutelage of the celebrated academician, William Adolphe Bouguereau. He stayed in France for nearly a decade and chiefly painted imagery that was popular at the time, namely depictions of the European peasantry and landscapes. In 1889, while in Paris, he also married fellow art student Virginia Walker, a rancher's daughter from Washington near the Oregon border. In 1891 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. 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)
After several years in France, Couse and his wife came back to Washington in the spring of 1896, living for the next two years at the Walker family's ranch. The Medicine Man is among the first major oils he produced after his return and in 1897 it was the painting he chose to send to the Spring Exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. In the painting, he depicts a solitary Klikitat Indian engrossed in meditation before an image of a horse painted directly on the earth. Around this image, the medicine man has lit small fires from which wisps of smoke rise as part of the rite. According to the artist's granddaughter, Virginia Couse Leavitt, the artist's model is a Klikitat Indian named Catsonut. As with his later, more celebrated works painted in Taos, Couse presents in The Medicine Man, the exotic life of the American Indian and also captures a measure of the quiet spirituality of his subject--a topic that informs the best of his art over a lifetime.
Five years after completing The Medicine Man, Couse would visit Taos for the first time. In a later reminiscence, his fellow artist, Ernest Blumenschein, famously summarized the lure of New Mexico; his comments could serve equally well to explain the attraction of Western subjects in Couse's earlier work. "We were ennuied with the hackneyed subject matter of thousands of painters," wrote Blumenschein, "windmills in a Dutch landscape; Brittany peasants with sabots; French roads lined with Normandy poplars, lady in negligee reclining on a sumptuous divan; lady gazing in mirror; lady powdering her nose; etc., etc. We felt the need of a stimulating subject. This, and the nature of youth, brought us to the west."("Origin of the Taos Art Colony," El Palacio, May, 1926, pp. 190-92, as quoted in The Legendary Artists of Taos, p. 11)
This painting will be included in Virginia Couse Leavitt's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.