Around this time of year, the cornucopia could very well be the most ubiquitous Western symbol of abundance, evoking a more agrarian past. However, this Tlingit “berrying basket” (kadádzaa yéit)—made by Tlingit women and children for harvesting berries—holds similar cultural (and more practical) significance for the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, as it would be used to collect special foods for the culmination of potlatch feasts.1
The potlatch ceremony, as practiced by the Tlingit (as well as many other indigenous groups in the Pacific Northwest and Canada2), centers on gift-giving. Potlatches take place for a variety of reasons, ranging from births and deaths to weddings and house building. Often replete with dancing, singing, storytelling, and the distribution of gifts, an important aspect of these lavish celebrations is the communal feast, to which such baskets contribute.
As both a practical and aesthetic object, this berrying basket features a traditional Tlingit embroidery design identified as “head of salmon berry,” a modern motif likely copied from an oil cloth pattern.3 Decorative yellow triangles and trapezoids punctuate the zigzagging black and brown bands. Slightly wider than it is tall, flared baskets such as this would be used to collect berries by knocking them right off the bush.
While the imagery of baskets overflowing with corn, squash, and grapes might appear hackneyed during these autumn months, food plays an undeniably central role in our social gatherings. Whether your get-togethers take years to plan (as is the case with some potlatches!), a few weeks, days, or hours (there is no shame in take-out . . . ), these celebrations with friends and family surely incorporate enough food to fill a berrying basket, many times over.
– Elisabeth Smith, Collections Coordinator
1 This basket in particular was one of many produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sold as souvenirs to tourists. Though derivative of traditional Tlingit berry and cooking baskets, it features the traditional geometric embroidery designs developed by the Tlingit.
2 This includes the Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, Nuxalk, and Tsimshian, to name only a few.
3 Frances Lackey Paul, Spruce Basketry of the Alaska Tlingit (Lawrence, Kansas: Haskell Institute, 1944).
Image: Kak (basket) Kadádzaa yéit (berrying basket), ca. 1900, Tlingit, spruce root, maidenhair fern stem, and grass (twining and false embroidery), 11 1/2 x 10 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.234
Adding a piece to a museum collection is an involved process. In the case of Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, a painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, the first interaction was on a trip to London when Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European and Sculpture got an email from Christie’s auction house in London about a private sale of a uniquely important painting.
Museum curators continually consider art for the museum’s collection. They assess intellectual and historical importance of artworks, ownership, relevance to the larger collection, as well as condition, potential costs for conservation, framing, display, and storage. SAM’s collection includes approximately 25,000 objects, with 36 new artworks acquired so far in 2017.
To acquire a work of art, the curator has to first convince the director and then the Committee on Collections (COC), an advisory group of board members and community arts leaders, who, in turn, make recommendations to the Executive Committee of the Board, which has the final vote.
To give you a peek into the acquisition process, below is the curatorial argument for this newly acquired painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin.
This painting represents a shipwreck of two launches from the famous French Enlightenment-era expedition led by Count Jean-François de La Pérouse, which reached Alaska in July 1786. The ships were getting ready to leave Lituya Bay when two boats were caught up in violent tidal currents and one boat capsized. The second vessel may have tried to rescue the sailors but itself went under. This painting was commissioned by the family of two brother officers who were killed in this event, and it was enthusiastically reviewed when it was displayed at the 1806 Salon. It has been in the family since that time.
La Pérouse’s expedition into the Pacific Northwest followed celebrated efforts by Spanish and British explorers in the previous decade. Scientific inquiry was a primary motivation, but the explorers were also seeking political advantage for their governments. On July 2, 1786 the expedition arrived at a previously uncharted bay on the Alaskan coast. La Pérouse named it Port des Français, but we know it today as Lituya Bay. After successfully navigating the rocky entrance to the bay, the crews set up camp, planning to stay for a month to explore the bay and glaciers on the mainland at the northeast end of the bay. They concluded their investigations sooner than planned and made ready to leave on July 13. Two boats were sent ahead to sound the channel near the perilous entrance to the bay so that they could chart the depth; one officer miscalculated the distance from the rocks and found his boat engulfed by a sudden high tide. Both boats capsized, and twenty-one men were lost in ten minutes.
The painting closely follows La Pérouse’s own narrative of the disaster and draws on images by the professional artists who illustrated the Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse. The two endangered boats teeter in the foreground amid boulders and high waves as a third tries vainly to reach them. The two mother ships emerge from behind Observatory Island (after the tragedy, La Pérouse redubbed this Cenotaph Island). The urgent efforts of the sailors caught up in the roiling waves are set against the majestic backdrop of the Fairweather mountain range. At the right, gesturing from a rock, are two members of the Tlingit tribe, witnesses to the event, who searched in vain for survivors, according to La Pérouse. The interaction with the French and the story of the shipwreck would remain part of the Tlingit oral tradition.
Crépin captures the men’s desperate actions as conditions suddenly changed. The two La Borde brothers, in the boat at right, offer a line to their doomed comrades just before they too are swept under. The terrible drama is all in the foreground, at eye level. Beyond the turbulent waves in the pass the bay is calm, the mountains of the Fairweather range are impassively still, and the sky is clear and blue.
Born in Paris, Louis-Philippe Crépin was a specialist in marine painting who had trained under celebrated artists Claude-Joseph Vernet and Hubert Robert. His interest in marine subjects kindled by Vernet, Crépin made his debut at the Salon of 1796 with a painting of the port of Brest. His primary patron throughout his long career would be the Naval Ministry of the government. Many of his works are in the National Maritime Museum in Paris, while others are in provincial museums throughout France. This work would likely be the first painting by Crépin in an American museum.
This painting transcends the standard conventions of marine painting. It stands alone within the artist’s oeuvre, achieving a peak of clarity, drama, and pathos that are typical of more highly valued history painting. The prestige of the La Pérouse expedition, the spectacular American landscape, and the portraits of the Laborde brothers make this one of Crépin’s most outstanding works. In his review of the 1806 Salon, Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Chaussard singled out the painting: “But the most beautiful painting by M. Crépin, and the one which most attracted the attention of art lovers and artists, was the Shipwreck of the Dinghies of M. de la Peyrouse. It is in this tragic event that he has deployed all his genius and all the resources of his art. The scene is represented with a touching simplicity, and yet with an energy which inspires at once terror and pity. There are no superfluous figures or accessories: all dramatic interest is in the truth of the action. . . . In sum, this painting promises that he is the rightful successor to Vernet, and that no other country has produced a rival to match this celebrated man.”
In addition to the painting’s superb quality, it has never been on the market, remaining in the family that commissioned it for over 200 years. This undoubtedly has contributed to its excellent state of preservation. The Empire frame, an impressive part of its visual impact, is from the same period as the painting.
Like the curators of the Salon, Ishikawa saw something exceptional in this work that lent itself to SAM’s focus. “It offers an insight into the European perspective of the Northwest as an uncharted area that hadn’t been recorded—the wonder and exoticism. Count Jean-François de La Pérouse who led the expedition to Lituya Bay, which at the time he named the Bay of the French, though it was clear by the trading skills of the Tlingit that this expedition was not the first to find this bay.” Ishikawa continues to point out that, “Crépin is not a famous artist but this is a painting that transcends its genre. It’s an impressive and successful example of human drama.” See this painting installed in Extreme Nature: Two Landscape Paintings from the Age of Enlightenment, opening December 23. Accompanied by the return of Volaire’s much admired Eruption of Mount Vesuvius with Ponte della Maddalena in the Distance, painted around the same time as the Crépin and last seen hanging at SAM this spring in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, this installation will instill a very human awe and fear in the face of nature’s power.
Image: Shipwreck Off the Coast of Alaska, 1806, Louis-Philippe Crepin, French, 1772-1851, oil on canvas, 40 15/16 × 58 11/16 in., Seattle Art Museum, European Art Acquisition Fund; Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund; by exchange Gift of Mrs. Lew V. Day in memory of her husband; Gift of Arthur F. Ederer; H. Neil Meitzler, Issaquah, Washington; Col. Philip L. Thurber Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Donald E. Frederick; The late Mr. Arrigo M. Young and Mrs. Young in memory of their son, Lieut. (j.g.) Lawrence H. Young; Phillips Morrison Memorial; Gift of Mrs. Oswald Brown, in memory of her parents Simeon and Fannie B. Leland; Gift of Miss Grace G. Denny in memory of her sister Miss Coral M. Denny; Gift of friends in memory of Frank Molitor; Purchased from funds contributed in memory of Henry H. Judson; Purchased from the bequest of Charles M. Clark; Gift of Mrs. John C. Atwood, Jr.; Norman and Amelia Davis Collection; Norman Davis Collection; Mrs. Cebert Baillargeon, in memory of her husband, 2017.15.
Katie Morris is a graduate intern at the Seattle Art Museum, working with the Curatorial Division this fall. This week, she gave a thoughtful and insightful tour of five of her favorite objects to SAM staff and interns. Here, she shares her thoughts with you.
-Sarah Berman, Curatorial Associate for Collections
Having been asked to choose my five favorite pieces of art on display at SAM I must apologize because I have come to the conclusion that I simply cannot achieve this goal. For me, it is impossible. Not only did I find that choosing five objects above all others on my preliminary “list of favorites” too difficult, in the process of attempting to fine-tune my selection I would inevitably find another intriguing or beautiful object that captured my eye with every walk through the gallery space. And don’t get me started on what a new day and different mood did to my selection.
So, with defeat not an option I tried to look at the task from a different angle, to give myself some boundaries and to try and anchor my selections. With this in mind a very large theme began to emerge across many of the objects at SAM – the theme of Ceremony.
In its most basic sense, ceremony is defined as a ritual observance and procedure performed at grand or formal occasions. In many regards, ceremony is apart of our daily lives.
Canoe-shaped bowl with quail topknots, early 20th century, Native American, Californian, Pomo, willow, sedge root, bracken fern root, quail feathers, 1 3/4 × 6 1/4 × 2 1/4in., Gift of the Estate of Robert M. Shields, 2013.4.13. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, Seattle Art Museum.
This canoe-shaped bowl with quail topknots is a quiet symbol of ceremony. For Native American Indians of the American West, basketry and weaving is considered a highly skilled art form passed down between generations. A woven object not only usually serves a direct and functional purpose, but it is also indicative of a broader system of cultural knowledge in its design, technique and the materials available locally for its creation.
Baskets such as this one were made as simple containers, but also as gifts during formal occasions. For example, traditional wedding ceremonies in certain regions often included the bride and groom gifting each other baskets full of objects signifying commitment; for women, bread and corn to symbolize the lifetime of support she will share with her new husband, for men, meat and skins for his bride to represent his promise to feed and clothe her. Baskets in other clans were used during birthing ceremonies, holding the baby’s umbilical cord along with other objects of meaning so that the ancestors will recognize them when they arrive in the spirit world.
Lkaayaak yeil s’aaxw (Box of Daylight Raven Hat), ca. 1850, Native American, Tlingit, Taku, Gaanax’adi clan, maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, paint, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather, Flicker feathers, 11 7/8 x 7 3/4 x 12 1/4in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.124. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, Seattle Art Museum.
This carving of maple, mirror, abalone shell, bird skin, sea lion whiskers, copper, leather and Flicker feathers is an elaborate example of Tlingit carved wood hats. These carvings, attached to larger headdresses, are among the most significant objects of Tlingit clans, kept safe by the clan leader or caretaker. They are shown or worn only on ceremonial occasions and their carving often captures distinct geographic features, animals or natural phenomena that form part of the clan’s legends to which it belongs.
This carved wood hat depicts Raven with human-like hands and fingers. Tlingit legend says that Raven was responsible for organizing the world to the form that we inhabit it today – this carving shows him releasing the sun, the red disk above his head, and the stars and moon which are in the box that he holds. It is unusual in its full sculptural form of Raven, who is frequently depicted in the face only.
This ironwood Pukamani pole is another example of carving used in ceremony. For the Tiwi people of the Tiwi Islands, just off the coast of the Northern Territory in Australia, Pukamani is the ceremony surrounding death. It is performed over a series of rituals beginning with the burial of the body and culminating in the final ceremony where carved Pukamani poles are placed around the grave in a circular shape to contain and comfort the spirit of the deceased.
Between death and the final placement of burial poles around the grave sometimes more than a year will pass, but most often about six months, as the family of the deceased work to organize the people who will be involved in the ceremonial duties. It also takes a long time to carve and paint a Pukamani pole. The artists of Pukamani poles such as Leon Puruntatamari, who made this example, are paid for their artistic efforts as whilst it is a privilege to be commissioned to complete a burial pole, the deceased’s honor is attached with how his or her family arranges the Pukamani ceremonies and how generous they are with those participating.
At a Pukamani ceremony members of different Tiwi clans congregate to ensure the safe and happy journey of the deceased to the spirit world through dance and song. People will paint their bodies with designs not foremost to designate clan as is usually thought to be the case, but rather to disguise the body from the deceased who is considered to be in trickster mode until the completion of Pukamani rituals. Tiwi people will also wear feather armbands and headdresses in order to better disguise themselves.
Although there are thousands of miles between the Tiwi Islands and Emily Kngwarreye’s Country Alhalkere, in Australia’s Utopia region of the central Desert, the act of body painting during and for ceremony is of equal and sacred importance.
Emily Kngwarreye starting painting on canvas in 1989 and before her death in 1996 she completed close to 3000 works. Posthumously she has been celebrated as a great abstract painter, contributing to the same artistic dialogue as artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. But Emily Kngwarreye never saw one of these iconic artist’s work, let alone studied them in a book. For Emily, her work considered and was about one subject only: her Country.
In Awelye (Ceremony), we are seeing the same lines on the canvas as they traditionally appear on the body during women’s ceremonies. With this in mind, the surface of the painting can be likened to a ceremonial ground in which Emily Kngwarreye reenacted the ceremony to which she was custodian. She was known to sing as she painted, using the canvas to remember and pay homage to her Country. With each brushstroke she connected herself to her ancestors and kin.
Tureen, ca. 1725-30, Austrian, Du Paquier manufactory, hard paste porcelain, 7 3/4 x 8 1/8 x 14in. overall, Gift of Martha and Henry Isaacson, 69.171. Currently on view in the Porcelain Room, Seattle Art Museum.
With family in mind, my final object of ceremony is of a vastly different tone to my four previous choices. It is in no way intended to trivialize the extreme significance of the four preceding examples of objects I have presented which are tied to ceremony, but rather to simply present another object from a new angle. Given the time of year and the busy Holiday season approaching, I cannot help but reflect on the ceremonies that I know I will be apart of in the last months of the year.
This hard paste porcelain tureen was produced in Vienna sometime between 1725 and 1730. The many treasures that made their way back to Europe as a result of increased trade in the eighteenth century influenced its design. You can see the lure of exotic and distant lands that came about with this travel is visible in the monkey and Japanese-inspired floral decoration.
When looking at this quirky object of domesticity I find myself wondering of the tables that this tureen has graced and the conversations it has overheard. Has it been apart of a wedding or a birthday celebration? Or perhaps a meal on a religious holiday? After all, what is the act of sitting around a dining table during the holidays or a special occasion with family and friends? Whether your holiday meals involve an elegant monkey tureen or paper plates and takeaway containers, I suggest that it is all ceremony.
Basket with Orca whale design, ca. 1910, Tlingit, spruce root, maidenhair fern stem, grass, and dyes (twining), 8 1/2 x 10 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 91.1.100. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, Seattle Art Museum.
Baskets made for collectors (rather than for use) were produced in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Tlingit women. They often took the form of functional Tlingit berry and cooking baskets and displayed traditional false embroidery designs—but the fine weaving betrays its decorative intentions. This example, depicting orca whales, is of a rare type developed in the late 19th century.
With just a few instruments—whistles, horns, rattles, clappers, box drums and hand drums—coastal peoples effectively conjured up the sounds of the supernatural realm. Rattles and clappers display the widest array of shapes, yet often depict images of birds—creatures imbued with unique abilities to move between the realms of the earth, water and sky.
Rattles and clappers accompany a host of secular and sacred songs. Rattles are used by ritualists and shamans to call forth supernatural beings whose presence is desired. They are also rhythmically shaken by attendants to subdue the power that has overcome those undergoing initiation into secret societies. The Tlingit word for rattle, sheishoox, imitates the swooshing sound when shaken.
Swan rattle, 19th century, Tlingit or Tsimshian, wood and paint, 5 5/16 x 10 3/4 x 3 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 59.104. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.
This Tlingit figure has the protruding diamond-shaped mouth associated with an angry or a singing spirit. The mask-like head held by the figure—carved from a separate piece of wood—takes the form of an animal. The knees, hands, lips, nostrils, and a line around the ankles and neck have been painted red, and the eyes, eyebrows, and feet have been painted black.
Small carved figures such as this one which represent shamans or shamans’ spirit helpers, and were part of the work of healing people. The animal head clasped before the figure’s chest may represent the shaman’s personal spirit power. Despite their diminutive size, figures such as this helped destroy the evil spirits which caused illness.
Shaman figure, ca. 1880, Tlingit, yellow cedar and paint, 12 1/4 x 3 x 3 1/4 in., Gift of John H. Hauberg, 83.235. Currently on view in the Native American art galleries, third floor, SAM downtown.