Oscar Howe (American, Yanktonai Nakota (Sioux), 1915-1983),
The Origin of Corn
tempera on paper, 21 3/8 x 29 3/8 in.
Gift of Morton Steinhart, 1949.180
Oscar Howe is one of the most widely recognized and highly respected of all twentieth-century Native American painters. Born on the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota, he received three years of formal training at the famed Studio of the Santa Fe Indian School and later earned degrees at both Dakota Wesleyan and the University of Oklahoma. In 1957 Howe was appointed Assistant Professor of Fine Arts and Artist-in-Residence at the University of South Dakota, where he remained for the rest of his distinguished career.
Among Howe's important early works are a number of commissioned murals. The Origin of Corn is a design study for one of these, first installed at Steinhart Lodge in a Nebraska City, Nebraska, park and subsequently moved to the town's city hall. This soft-hued tempera image is a classic example of what has come to be called Traditional Indian Painting, a genre largely developed and encouraged by the Santa Fe Indian School Studio and characterized by a preference for traditional tribal subjects rendered in a fairly flat, realistic style. While Howe painted in this manner for many years, he also created a personal, distinctive style, incorporating rhythmically fragmented planar patterns that give these works a Cubist quality. Howe denied any such influence, however, asserting a native origin for his designs. He was singularly successful in establishing the right of Indian painters to be innovative. When one of his new works was rejected from a museum exhibition in 1958 because it was not "traditional," Howe responded angrily that Indian art, old and new, held power, strength, and variety: "Are we to be held back forever with one phase of . . . painting, with no right for individualism?" Howe's protest sparked a change in attitude, and museums and collectors began to accept new directions along with traditional ones in Indian art.