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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. Those 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 extraordinarily scant.

This particular example, though unattributed, is one of the very best 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. 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. To me, the best objects in early American folk art exemplify an artist’s skill at creating a visually intriguing design that stylizes and/or simplifies some sort of natural (i.e., fine art) image, be it real or imagined.

McIntyre was a folk carver. Rush most certainly was not. While Rush’s carvings of human and human-like figures was nothing short of masterful, the eagles attributed to his hand do not exhibit the same level of care or expertise. This could illustrate the simple fact that carvings needed to be completed to be paid for, meaning that, by way of simply being practical, time was of the essence and all carvings may not exhibit “Rolls Royce” level workmanship. The eagles of John Bellamy that are considered his masterpieces are different than those that comprised his bread-and-butter, day-to-day work that put food on the table. Bellamy considered himself more of an entrepreneur than an artist, though he was undoubtedly both. Most people selling their work for a living had to develop some sort of balance between these two roles.

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 voluptuous nature of its curved neck, brow, tongue, and beak, and how they complement one-another around a piercing, deep-set eye. Also note how these things are stylistically reflected in the bulbous wrists of the wings, the large talons, and prominent, covert feathers. The bird itself is ebonized, and the clouds are gilded. The latter exhibit much more in the way of surface loss, probably due to both a layer of heavy gesso and exposure to various elements where it was hung or stored.

If the use of clouds as a perch seems an unusual one for the American eagle, know that clouds are a consistent element 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, which was both submitted to Congress and accepted 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, meaning the United States Congress that existed following the March 1st, 1781 acceptance of the Articles of Confederation]. This was in use between approximately 1782 - 1789, after the Constitution was ratified and 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, in active use from September, 1782 – 1841. On the die, now at the National Archives, one can 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, with 13 six-pointed stars emblazoned upon it, arranged in a six-pointed, “Great Star” pattern (a star made out of stars), to signify the 13 colonies that together formed the new nation. All of the same components are still present today on the current Great Seal, with a modernization of the elements, but no earthshattering differences. Although the clouds have been there from the 18th century to the 21st, the inclusion of clouds as a perch for carved versions of the American eagle are highly unusual.

In summary, this is one of the earliest and best developed carvings of its kind that I have encountered in the world of fine, American decorative arts, 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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