Beyond the Frame: Acee Blue Eagle in the Penn Museum

January 17, 2018

Object Analysis by Malkia Okech

“Medicine Man on Horse” is a painting on paper. A Pawnee artwork with colors of blue and yellow standing out, supported by accents of red and green. A man sits astride a horse, wearing leather hide leggings, a buffalo-head headpiece with horns, moccasins, and gloves, and his face is painted. He holds a staff-like object to the sky, its shape nearly matching that of the stylized thunderbird-like figure painted in the sky. The Appaloosa horse is simple, wearing only a blue and yellow bridle. The rear legs appear to have been moving in a gallop, but the front legs have paused, taking shorter and more exaggerated stride. The ground is accented by two piles of rocks with greenery spouting from them. As a whole, the piece is very flat. There is a lack of dimensionality, and no background or scenery to complement the subject. It almost appears decontextualized.

The nature of the exact event is not clear, but the subject of the piece is partaking in some sort of action. His face is stern, and his mouth is slightly open, as if to issue a call, perhaps something related to the object in his hand and the iconography above him. What were the intentions of this piece? Who was the audience? Is it a portrait? Was it made for a “traditional” gallery setting? Why did the artist decide to decorate the foreground with hints of the natural landscape, but omit the background, creating a flat and nearly blank setting? What exactly is being shown – is this part of a ritual, a procession, some kind of action? What are the spiritual or utilitarian conventions at hand? To attempt to answer these questions, I sought to learn more about the artist, Acee Blue Eagle. Blue Eagle (his birth name was Alex McIntosh) was born near Anadarko, Oklahoma, in 1909. He attended Bacone Indian College and the University of Oklahoma, earning an art degree before coming back to head the art department at Bacone. [1] This college for Native students in Muskogee, Oklahoma, was the locale where the “Bacone” style or “Traditional Oklahoma Flatstyle” of art developed. These works are defined as scenes of everyday life, intertwining native tradition with an ecstatic graphic style, using lots of color and stylized imagery.[2]

The development of this art department was tied closely to federal legislation at the time. Up until the 1930s, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs banned teaching traditional art in designated Indian boarding schools. This restriction was lifted during the Great Depression, when it was suggested that the arts could be a source of income for Native Americans. The “Indian Arts and Crafts Act” of 1935 created a protected category of American Indian art.[3] It is important to distinguish that the governmental concern, in this case, was financial rather than cultural. Native people were encouraged to artistically depict and sell representations of cultural lifeways at the same time they were being forced to assimilate to American culture.

An article in American Indian Art Magazine credits Blue Eagle as being one of the key artists who spearheaded the American Indian fine arts movement, stating that he represents “the best of the first generation of painters from an Oklahoma Creek population… Yet these men lived modest lives… originally selling their painting for two-figure sums.” The works that they produced in the 1930s are even more valuable today, selling at auctions in New York and Santa Fe “for 200 to 300-times their original sale prices.”[5] Blue Eagle wanted to disband false stereotypes of his people, but he also wanted to make sure his work sold in order to support himself.

“Medicine Man on Horse” (59-14-47) by Acee Blue Eagle.
Acee Blue Eagle (Sam Flood Collection, State Museum, 20699-79-80-3). Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture.

Native artists often turned to their people’s older history and looked to other Native cultures in order to seek out more recognizable Indian imagery. One might suggest the “Medicine Man on Horse” does this. It seems easy to digest, tangible to the Western eye. The general composition and iconography–a fairly straightforward image of an Indian man on a horse–does not seem to require prior knowledge in order to understand what is going on.

An example of a piece of work that seems, at first glance, more direct and realistic for observation is “Medicine for Children” (1945), a painting housed at the Gilcrease Museum.[6] In this painting, five people are pictured: three adults and two children. This image has a little more scenery, providing more context, but there is still a blank background behind what looks like a community and a lodge. Each person wears a different outfit, combining traditional patterns (e.g. the two men’s belts) with everyday American clothing of the time (e.g. the small boy in overalls). The sky is dotted by birds and the sun sits on the far right side, with arrows streaming out from it.

The article “Picturing Traditional Culture” makes a point of contrasting this with other pieces by Blue Eagle in that what is happening may not be immediately obvious, especially to the Western observer and/or buyer.[7] Initially, one can gather there is some sort of dialogue happening. The men wearing hats accented by feathers are helping the children, who are being watched by a woman (presumably a mother). The scene is a purification ritual during the Green Corn Ceremony. The man with the yellow shirt is a ceremonial official, his status marked by the action of pointing while he holds a staff. This painting is just as beautiful and thought-provoking as “Medicine Man on Horse” is, but there are very likely hidden meanings, in the specificity of the gestures, the dress, and the positions of the people.

Malkia Okech in the Collections Study Room of the Penn Museum. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

“Medicine Man on Horse” came to the Penn Museum as part of an exchange with the Denver Art Museum in 1959, the same year that Acee Blue Eagle died. It came with an assortment of other Native American objects (including the peyote rattle discussed by Sheridan Small). Among these objects (mostly ceramics, jewelry, and textiles), Blue Eagle’s piece is one of four paintings. The others are a piece by Bacone colleague Fred Beaver, Apache painter Calvin Vigil, and one of Dorothy Dunn’s Sante Fe students, Harrison Begay.

How does a painting end up in an anthropological museum? This brings the question of “art versus artifact.” In the Eurocentric study of art history, an artifact has contextual value, whereas an artwork has visual and aesthetic value. In many cultures, the line between art and object is blurred. The agency and functionality of a piece can be paired to symbolism defined by beautiful color, shape, and mastery of craft. The exchange of paintings between the Denver Art Museum and the Penn Museum suggests there was a dialogue in which this painting was considered better utilized in an anthropological museum. Perhaps this was because the actor in this painting is using objects present in the Penn Museum (e.g. staff, headpiece, leggings, equine equipment). This could serve as a supplemental tool for contextualizing other artifacts. Another consideration is that, in general, Native American artifacts were often distanced from the mainstream American context, perpetuating the false notion of the “vanishing Indian.” Perhaps a Native American painter’s work was thought to be less valuable than Western art ideals?

In looking back at the “Medicine Man,” there is deep cultural significance to this imagery, especially coming from Blue Eagle himself. Each element in the image–the staff, the headdress, the quillwork, the beads, and even the gaze of the man on the horse–likely carries a meaning that was known to his community, but unknown to outside observers. Perhaps he intended it to be obscure, an act of resistance that looks like stereotypical “Indian art.” This painting teaches us about the political, economic, and artistic influences which made the Native American artist in the early 20th century. “Medicine Man on Horse” serves as a case study for the Native American visual experience, inside and outside of the speculation of the art market. It also opens the doors for debate between the definition of art and artifact, and the sociopolitical implications of such a discussion. Acee Blue Eagle’s simple yet stunning paintings are a visual representation of the dichotomy of the Native American in today’s world: fantasy and fetish versus reality.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2017 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

Sources Cited:

[1] David C. Hunt, “Blue Eagle, Acee,” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, Oklahoma Historical Society. www.okhistory.org (accessed November 29, 2017).
[2] Acee Blue Eagle, Oklahoma Indian Painting–Poetry (Tulsa, OK: Acorn Publishing Co., 1959).
[3] United States Department of the Interior, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, “Indian Arts and Crafts Act.” Public Law no. 355, 74th Congress, S.2203, 1935.
[5] J. B. Jackson, “Picturing traditional culture: Heritage as Subject and Motivation in the Work of Three Muscogee (Creek) Painters.” American Indian Art Magazine 37 (2011): 64-73, 76.
[6] Anne Morand, Kevin Smith, Daniel C. Swan, and Sarah Erwin, Treasures of Gilcrease: Selections from the Permanent Collection (Tulsa, OK: Gilcrease Museum, 2003), 113.
[7] J. B. Jackson, “Picturing traditional culture: Heritage as Subject and Motivation in the Work of Three Muscogee (Creek) Painters.” American Indian Art Magazine 37 (2011): 64-73, 76.

For an overview of the 2017 object studies in the Anthropology of Museums class, see:
• Margaret Bruchac. “Object Matters: Considering Materiality, Meaning, and Memory” in Beyond the Gallery Walls, Penn Museum Blog, Fall 2017.