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Painted wooden figure of a white sea captain smoking a pipe - Donald Ellis Gallery

Sea Captain

Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

ca. 1860-80

wood, ivory, paint

height: 23 ½"

Inventory # N3674



Private collection, New Hampshire              


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2011, pgs. 66-67


Washington State Museum, No. 2216 – See:  Inverarity, Robert B. Art of the Northwest Coast Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950, pl. 224

For a group of argillite examples see: British Columbia Provincial Museum, Cat. No.15712 R – See: Hoover, Alan L., Macnair, Peter L. The Magic Leaves: A History of Argillite Carving. Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1984, pl. 73

National Museum of Denmark, Nos. H.c. 329 and H.c.1380 (collected 1838-1841 during the Wilkes Expedition) – See: Drew, Leslie and Wilson, Douglas. Argillite, Art of the Haida. Vancouver: Hancock House Publishers, 1989, pg. 191

Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, No. AA1877 – See: Sheehan, Carol. Pipes That Won’t Smoke, Coal That Won’t Burn. Calgary: The Glenbow Museum, 1981, pl. 30

Denver Art Museum, No. 1953.449 – See: Conn, Richard. Native American Art in the Denver Art Museum. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979, pl. 446

Seattle Art Museum, No. 91.1.106 – See: Brown, Steven C.  The Spirit Within. New York: Rizzoli, 1995, pl. 55

The Burke Museum, Seattle – See: Holm, Bill. Crooked Beak of Heaven. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972, pl. 114

This monumental wood sculpture closely relates to a group of important 19th century Haida stone carvings known as “Sea Captain” figures. Carved of argillite, a soft slate-like stone found only in the Queen Charlotte Islands, these carvings of Euro-American seafarers are a fascinating window into mid 19th century life on the Northwest Coast. The Sea Captains are thought to be likenesses of the very gentlemen that commissioned the works, and are rendered in the unique manner of the Haida interpreting Western facial features and demeanor (see: Holm, Bill. Box of Daylight. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984, pg. 107). As a group, the argillite figures are expertly carved and in many cases meticulously detailed.  The face, as here, is often of ivory or bone to replicate the color of the “Iron People” as the Haida sometimes referred to Euro-Americans (see: Brown, Steven C. The Spirit Within. New York: Rizzoli, 1995, pg. 150). The subjects are naturalistically carved, with elongated noses, prominent chins, and thin often slightly smiling lips. In the wonderful figure illustrated here, we find an extremely rare example of a Sea Captain carved almost entirely from wood. The figure wears the heavy boots with slightly upturned toes and the military style great coat and hat seen in the more common argillite figures. The face is finely modeled in pale ivory in the classic Haida style, and here, as an added detail, the figure smokes a pipe. Like its argillite counterparts, this figure was quite likely commissioned by its Euro-American subject as a memento of time spent among the Haida.

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