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Dimensions (inches): 36" w x 23" tall x 17"d
With all of the research compiled on so many objects in the world of American decorative arts, one would think that a plethora of knowledge would be accessible on carved American eagles of the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, however, this is simply not so. Most of what has been written is centered on John Haley Bellamy (1836-1914), who sold his first around 1870. Very little has been assembled on earlier carvers, such a William Rush (1766-1833) and Samuel McIntire (1757-1811), but some attributions have been made. McIntyre’s work is easier to recognize, based upon some of the notable features in documented examples. Examples attributed to Rush, considered perhaps the greatest American carver of the last quarter of the 18th century, are plentiful enough, but so notably inconsistent that making a new attribution is extremely difficult. Beyond the two men, the names of other carvers are so scant that I can’t recite any of them.

This particular example, though unattributed, is one of the very of its kind that I have ever seen. Many of the carvings adored by collectors have more of a folk-driven sensibility than one rooted in fine art. There is nothing at all wrong with that. As a dealer and collector of American folk art, I could scarcely have more appreciation for stylized and/or whimsical characteristics. But to truly appreciate great folk art, I think that one must have a pretty fair understanding of what makes good fine art. The best of the former is often a wonderful combination of an observer’s simplification and stylization of the latter.

McIntyre was a folk carver. Rush was most certainly not. While Rush’s carvings of human and human-like figures was nothing short of masterful, the eagles attributed to his had do not exhibit the same level of care and expertise. Very likely, this is because carvings needed to be finished to be paid for, meaning that, by way of simply being practical, all could not be Rolls Royce level work. A similar circumstance was obvious in the work of John Bellamy, whose masterpieces were not his bread-and-butter, day-to-day paycheck.

The carved, wooden eagle that is the subject of this narrative is more expert and better developed than any early example I have seen attributed to William Rush. Standing on a bed of clouds, in a defensive pose, note the profound features in its curved neck, brow, deep-set eye, tongue, and beak. Also note how these things are stylistically reflected in in the bulbous wrists of the wings and the large talons, as well as in the prominent, covert feathers beneath their inner arch.

The bird, itself, is ebonized, while the clouds are gilded. The latter exhibit much more in the way of surface loss, probably due to both the heavy layer of gesso and exposure to some sort of environment that triggered breakdown.

If the use of clouds as a perch seems an unusual one for the American eagle, know that clouds are a consistent element of throughout the earliest known depictions of eagles in American patriotic imagery, including all versions of the Great Seal of the United States. They appear in both the first and second, unsuccessful submissions of Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey (both submitted in the 1780), as well as the final submission of Charles Thompson of Pennsylvania, that combined elements suggested by the three successive committees that reviewed them, both submitted and accepted by Congress on June 20th, 1782. Clouds appear in the design of the seal of the President of the Congress of the Confederation (the outgrowth of Continental Congress, following the March 1st, 1781 acceptance of the Articles of Confederation), used between approximately 1782 until approximately 1789, when Washington assumed the White House.

According to Thompson, the reason for including clouds was to illustrate a new nation, emerging through them. Clouds of almost identical form, to those present on this particular eagle, appear on the original die produced for the Great Seal of the United States, used from September of 1782 - 1841, which survives among the holdings of the National Archives. On the die, one can, in fact, see Thompson’s representation of the concept, as the head of the great bird pushes through the ring of clouds to the illustrious rays of a bright sun inside, with 13 six-pointed stars, arranged in a six-pointed, Great Star pattern, emblazoned upon it, to signify the 13 colonies that together formed the new nation. All of the same components are present today, on the current Great Seal, with a modernization of the elements, but no earthshattering differences. Though the clouds are still present, between 18th century to today, the inclusion of clouds as a perch for carved versions of the American eagle are highly unusual.

In summary, one of the earliest and best developed carvings of an eagle that I have encountered in the realm of fine, American decorative arts, made circa 1785-1820, with exceptional craftsmanship, beautiful, ebonized surface, and unusual symbolism for this media.

Condition: Report to follow. Please inquire.
Primary Color: black, gold
Earliest Date: 1785
Latest Date: 1820
For Sale Status: Available
Price Please call (717) 676-0545 or (717) 502-1281
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