- United States
Height: 69.625 in. Width: 76.875 in.
Gift of C.W. Douglas, 1932.242
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2012. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
For a long time, the name of the artist who created this painting wasn’t known. However, research by the museum’s native arts curator, Nancy Blomberg, uncovered about half a dozen paintings in a very similar style in other museum collections. In the records associated with a painting almost exactly like this one, Blomberg found an entry in an auction catalog with a signature and was therefore able to attribute this work to Louis Fenno.
Fenno was a Ute Indian artist who was active during the late 1800s. He was hired, or commissioned, to paint these scenes of the Ute Bear Dance and Sun Dance by the owners of a trading post in Myton, in northwestern Utah.
What Inspired It
This painting shows two important dances of the Ute people in southern Colorado and Utah. On the top is the Sun Dance held each July. The Sun Dance is both a personal quest by the dancers for spiritual power and purification and a communal rite for the entire tribe. The dancers fast for the duration of the ceremony, which can last three or four days.
The two lines of male and female dancers in the middle of the painting are performing the Bear Dance, one of the oldest Ute ceremonies, held in the spring when bears come out of hibernation. The Ute people believe their ancestors were bears. According to Ute tradition, the bear possess magical powers and is the wisest animal. The Bear Dance is performed to awaken the bear from hibernation so the animal/ancestor can lead the people to gather roots, nuts, and berries.
Louis Fenno painted these scenes in great detail, portraying everything from the items of clothing worn by the dancers to the construction of the Sun Dance enclosure. His painting style is both individualistic and culturally accurate.
Fenno placed the Sun Dance lodge in the top center of the painting. Its center pole is meant to represent the center of power. The two dancers are closest to the pole, and family and community members watch from the edges of the brush circle. According to Southern Ute Sun Dance leader Eddie Box Sr., “the presence of family is absolutely critical in giving the Sun Dancer strength and sustenance as he undergoes his quest-ordeal.”
Some of the dancers carry eagle-feather fans.
This man is rubbing a bear rasp, often made from an animal’s jawbone, to mimic the sound of the bear and create music and rhythm for the dance.
On the left side of the painting, Fenno included a woman seated by herself, not participating in the dance. This woman probably represents the traditional practice of seclusion during menstruation.
Along the bottom of the image, Fenno painted an eagle, a snake emerging from an earthen mound, and a bighorn sheep entwined with a snake. Though we don’t know the meaning of these animal images, we believe they likely relate to the origins of the ceremonies shown in the artwork.