Artist Unknown (American, Haida, 19th century),
painted wood with glass insets, 10½ x 9, 26.67 x 22.86 cm
Museum purchase, 1959.532
The greater part of the Haida people live on Queen Charlotte Islands, a chain of mountains separated from the British Columbia mainland by some of the roughest open waters on the coast. Often regarded as the pre-eminent sailors of the region, they were also admired by Europeans for their art — most notably the dramatic totem poles — which was avidly acquired by private collectors and museums from the mid nineteenth century. As their wealth increased and they acquired steel blades through the fur trade, their production of art attained a scale and quality that contributed to an early conception of Haida as epitomizing all Northwest Coast cultures.
Haida masks invariably maintain the strong rhythmic and symmetrical qualities of their art yet frequently display the surprising realism so evident in this unusual portrait of a European or American man. His ample hair and bushy sideburns are rendered in taut, incised curves which, highlighted in red, represent a tour de force of artistic economy. Most startling is the inlaid material across the nose and cheeks that represents freckles, or perhaps the effects of smallpox.
Thought to have been worn ceremonially by chiefs and people of high rank, the more traditional and abstracted Haida masks were adorned with elaborate crests. The purpose of the realistic portrayals of foreigners, such as this, is unclear, and it is possible that some of them were direct commissions.