Untitled Painting of Eagle Dancers with Drummer and Singer


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Tonita Vigil Peña, Quah Ah, San Ildefonso Pueblo Painter

Tonita Peña (1893-1949) Quah Ah was born in 1893 at the small New Mexico pueblo of San Ildefonso Pueblo.  The pueblo is located on the Rio Grande, just north of Santa Fe. When Peña was just twelve years old, her mother passed away. Her father, unable to raise her while tending to his responsibilities at the pueblo, took her to live with her aunt and uncle at Cochiti Pueblo.  This was where she would spend the remainder of her life. Peña was the only woman in the group of talented early pueblo artists referred to as The San Ildefonso Self-Taught Group, which included such noted artists as Julian Martinez, Alfonso Roybal, Abel Sanchez, Crescencio Martinez, and Encarnación Peña.  These artists were the earliest known pueblo painters. Today, their works are highly collectible not just because of their historical significance but because of their quality.

Peña is recognized as the first Pueblo Indian woman to make a living as a painter.  By the time she was 25 years old, she was a successful easel artist. Her work was being displayed in museum exhibitions and in commercial art galleries in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. She painted what she knew best—scenes of life at the pueblo.  She mostly painted ceremonial dances, and occasionally depicted everyday events. She did so with incredible skill and sensitivity. It is apparent in her works that she truly knew and respected each of the rituals she depicted. In the years since her passing she has come to be regarded as one of the greatest Indian artists of all time.  Her works are displayed in prominent public and private collections around the country.

This excellent untitled painting by Tonita Peña most likely dates to the second decade of the twentieth century.  Peña painted one of her favorite subjects here—an eagle dance. As per usual, her dancers are outstanding. Each dancer is pictured in the position that Peña used frequently: arms outstretched, right hand raised and left hand lowered, standing on the left foot.  They’re composed in an attractively loose fashion. The details—jewelry, elaborate ceremonial garb—are there, but they’re not defined by tight outlines. Rather, these small but important intricacies are made entirely of robust color. Peña’s typically varied color palette serves this image well, and includes some variations not often seen in Pueblo paintings from this period.  The rich maroon and bright orange used for the two shirts stands out, as do the bright red and green used for the Eagle Dancers’ sashes. Their faces are depicted with Peña’s usual style and sensitivity. This wonderfully unique image is further evidence that, even early in her career, Tonita Peña was one of the greatest Native painters.

Artist Signature - Tonita Vigil Peña (1893-1949) Quah AhThe painting is signed “Quah Ah” in its lower right corner.  This signature allows us to confidently identify the painting as an early work, as she only used this signature until around 1918.

Condition: this Untitled Painting of Eagle Dancers with Drummer and Singer is in very good condition

Provenance: private collection

Recommended Reading: Tonita Peña by Samuel Lewis Gray

Close up view of this Pueblo painting.

Tonita Vigil Peña, Quah Ah, San Ildefonso Pueblo Painter
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