In May 2000 the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian presented Treasures from the Thaw Collection: Masterpieces of Native American Art. Beginning in the 1980s, noted connoisseurs Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw collected objects of native North American art that were “expressive and potent experiences for the eye,” and that represented the finest available examples of traditional craftsmanship. The 53 pieces on display at the Wheelwright were true masterworks, offering a rich and rare visual opportunity.
Among the treasures on exhibit was a late nineteenth-century Lakota war record. Rendered on hide by two different artists, it is a realistic and colorful pictograph recalling a battle between a victorious Lakota war party and a group of Crow warriors. Paintings such as these, original intended to document a warrior’s achievements and claims of prestige, are a lively and compelling art form.
Also included was a pair of black-dyed Huron moccasins, delicately embroidered with moose hair, cotton thread, and ribbon. They were probably collected about 1838 by Lady Mary Louisa Lambton, wife of James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin who served as Governor-General of Canada from 1847-1853. Bruce also obtained a Micmac woman’s hood of trade cloth embellished with trade beads, imported ostrich features, and exquisite silk ribbon applique. These garments reflect the skill and sensitivity with which Native women used exotic materials brought to them through trade with Europeans.
During the mid-nineteenth century, Haida artists from British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Island carved fine hardwood figurines that illustrated changes occurring in local culture. Featured in the exhibition was a beautifully executed statuette of a young Haida woman of high birth, wearing red yarn ear ornaments and a long, black, European-style dress. the skillful rendering of her posture and facial expression give her an air of amused dignity.
As a dealer of European and American paintings and drawings, Eugene Thaw built a reputation as an astute collector and art historian. One of his achievements is the co-authorship of Jackson Pollock: A Catalogue Raissonne. In 1987, he and his wife Claire moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where they began collecting Native American art with the same passion and aesthetic sense they had applied to previous ventures. When they placed their Native American collections at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, the gift was hailed as “the most significant of its type donated to the American public since the depression era.” The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian was proud to bring Treasures from the Thaw Collection to Santa Fe.