1871 - 1945
oil on canvas, circa 1930
signed M. Emily Carr and on verso inscribed "No 4" in graphite and stamped twice Dominion Gallery with the original 1448 St. Catherine West address
24 x 18 in 61 x 45.7 cm
Estimate: $600,000 - $800,000
Sold for: $1,638,000
Preview at: Heffel Vancouver
Dominion Gallery, Montreal, circa 1944
By descent to a Private Collection, Vancouver
Sold sale of Fine Canadian Art, Heffel Fine Art Auction House, November 8, 2001, lot 45, reproduced cover lot
Private Collection, USA
Sharyn Rohlfsen Udall, Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, 2000, a similar 1931 canvas entitled Big Raven, in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, reproduced front cover and page 173
Gerta Moray, Unsettling Encounters, First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr, 2006, a circa 1928 - 1929 watercolour of a similar eagle figure entitled The Great Eagle, Skidegate, BC, in the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, reproduced page 259
Charles C. Hill, Johanne Lamoureux and Ian M. Thom, Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon, National Gallery of Canada, 2006, a similar 1931 canvas entitled Big Raven, in the collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, reproduced page 185
A.K. Prakash, Independent Spirit, Early Canadian Women Artists, 2008, a circa 1929 canvas of a large carved bird entitled Thunderbird, Campbell River, BC reproduced page 65
Eagle Totem is one of the rarest treasures in Canadian art; a mature period Emily Carr oil on canvas with First Nations subject matter. Lawren Harris's concern for the fate of Carr's art was so strong that in 1942, when Carr was exceedingly ill, he advised her to create a trust to see to their future care. She agreed, and Harris enlisted the aid of Ira Dilworth to look after Carr's writings and act as her literary executor, as well as anthropologist William Newcombe, whose knowledge of Carr's West Coast subject matter was invaluable. Thus the Emily Carr Trust was created with Harris, Dilworth and Newcombe as the trustees.
Their first task was to assist Carr in selecting a group of paintings to be held in the trust and later bequeathed to the citizens of British Columbia. Many of the works that were selected for the province were masterpieces with First Nations subjects such as Eagle Totem. Eagle Totem was selected to be sold by Dr. Max Stern of Dominion Gallery, thus it remains one of the few early 1930s Carr oil on canvas masterpieces in private hands.
The late 1920s were a time of exploration and experimentation for Carr. Her inclusion in the exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern in Ottawa in 1927 had introduced her to a new range of possibilities for painting in Canada. Her acceptance by the members of the Group of Seven and her training with Mark Tobey at master classes held at her studio in 1928 reignited her interest in painting, and she turned to the subject matter of First Nations totemic figures again with a renewed vigour. Her goals for these new works were, however, somewhat different from the earlier totemic paintings. Where previously she had sought to provide documentation of the poles and had, to some degree, sublimated her own artistic expression in doing so, she was now trying to convey both her deep respect for these sculptural monuments and her own connection to the forests of British Columbia. At the same time, she was trying to integrate the new ideas she had seen in Tobey's teaching (a form of Cubism) and the monumentality that she admired in Harris's images of the North Shore of Lake Superior. The best images from this exciting period around 1930 combine a command of volumetric form with an understanding of the feel of forest growth.
Eagle Totem is a superb example of Carr's mature style. It draws on her own study of the totemic figures from journeys in 1912 and 1928 and close observation of the forest landscape. The totem in this work is at once distinct from and yet a part of the vital whole that Carr conceived as being nature. Carr viewed the poles as coming from and thus being part of the natural world. The powerful form of the bird is convincing in conveying a sense of volume and weight. It is a point of stasis in the moving forms of nature seen in the foreground and the dramatic light effects seen in the background. The close cropping of the image, with the top of the pole cut off, has allowed Carr to give the image a dramatic scale and visual energy that is compelling.
What is striking about the painting is Carr's ability to marshal all of the pictorial forces in a way that suggests that she is in complete command of her art. The trees at the left, for example, are highly stylized; the roiling forms of the foliage at the base of the pole are generalized but convincing. Notable too is the complex pattern of light in the work - the dramatic triangular shape emerging from the right side of the image and the fall of light from the left suggested by the highlights on the tops of the foliage and on the totem itself. The white area provides an opportunity to give the bird an imposing silhouette, and the contrast of angular with curved shapes is also striking. The energy of nature is balanced by the power of the totem, which seems to resist the relentless forces of nature that will eventually reclaim it for the forest.
Eagle Totem is an eloquent statement of Carr's belief in the power of both First Nations art and culture, and the abundance and beauty of nature.
Estimate: $600,000 - $800,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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