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Verso:
Copy of a 1927 letter from Couse to Mrs. Barnhart

According to Virginia Couse Leavitt, “Sometime in the early 1920s Couse decided to modify his painting, Decorating the War Shield. The original version is now known only from the American Lithographic Company’s house calendar. Although American Lithographic purchased the copyright from Couse in 1920, the painting was retained by Couse for future sale. By the time it was purchased by Esther Smith Barnhart on August 2, 1927, Couse had made changes to the canvas. The original version was a peaceful image of his model Jerry Mirabal posed as an Indian artist painting the stylized bird on the rawhide surface of a war shield. The subsequent changes that Couse made to the painting’s shield turned it into a powerful call to arms.

“On the shield in the final version of the painting, Couse represented an intimidating image of Knifewing, the Zuni god of war. He based this image on Frank Hamilton Cushing’s illustration in the Bureau of Ethnology’s 2nd Annual Report published in 1883. Knifewing stands beneath a rainbow, representing the bow of the sky. His terraced cap represents his dwelling among the clouds. His wings and tail are sharp, knife-like feathered pinions. He stands on the arrow of lightning and is flanked by two mountain lion guardians. In the left background Couse added the glowing embers of a fire, thus adding drama to the context.

“The dramatic changes that Couse made to his canvas may have been prompted by the politics of the period. In 1922 the Bursum Bill was introduced into Congress, which would have allowed the pueblo people to be dispossessed of their lands and water. Many artists and writers in Taos and Santa Fe rallied to support their Indian friends in opposition to this bill. It is likely that Couse’s representation of a war shield bearing the image of Knifewing was in response to the outrage he felt over the injustice of the proposed legislation.

“In a letter written to Mrs. Barnhart after she purchased the painting, Couse reminded her that the copyright had been sold earlier. It is interesting that the copyright was still applicable, although the painting had been altered by the changes he had made.”

PROVENANCE:
The Artist
E. S. Barnhart, Ft. Worth, Texas, 1927
Lenix Reed Houston and Al McClendon, Dallas, Texas, by descent
Property from a Private Collection

LITERATURE:
Betsy Thomas, “All in the Family: Taos’s Couse Foundation” Fine Art Connoisseur (Boynton Beach, FL: Streamline Publishing, Inc., June 2014), page 87, illustrated

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