Painting of Bear and Sun Dances

late 1800s, possibly 1890

Object

Artist

Louis Fenno, Ute, United States

Country

  • United States

Object Info

This object may or may not be on view currently.

Height: 69.625 in. Width: 76.875 in.

Gift of C.W. Douglas, 1932.242

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Medium

  • paint

About

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.

Sun Dance Lodge
Sun Dance Lodge

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.”

Sun Dance Fans
Sun Dance Fans

Some of the dancers carry eagle-feather fans.

Bear Dance Rasp
Bear Dance Rasp

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.

Seated Woman with Basket
Seated Woman with Basket

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.

Animals
Animals

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.

Teaching Resources

Telling the story of the Ute people through historical photographs, this video shows their experience during the non-native settlement of Colorado.

This video shows a modern beardance of the Ute people.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.