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About This Artwork
War Shirt, 1830/40
Deer hide, ermine tails, glass pony beads, hair, porcupine quills, and trade cloth
Approx. 101.6 x 50.8 cm (40 x 20 in.)
Frederick W. Renshaw, Ada Turnbull Hertle, and Curator's Discretionary funds; restricted gift of the Donnelley Foundation, Cynthia and Terry E. Perucca, and Mrs. Leonard S. Florsheim, Jr.; African and Amerindian Art Small Gifts Fund; Arnold Crane Endowment; African and Amerindian Art Purchase Fund; David Soltker and Irving Dobkin endowments, 2004.485
War Shirts are compelling, quintessential icons of the American West. Perhaps no other chapter in the long history of American Indian art has such high dramatic appeal than that of the 19th century tribes of the Great Plains. With their bison hunts, mounted raids, beaded garments with flying fringes, war dances, and dangerous adventuresome life, these peoples have assumed in our collective imagination a sense of wild yet disciplined freedom. Yet War Shirts also speak of highly ordered, even regimented, societies with their complex systems of obligations, honors, and rewards. These special symbolic garments appeared by the late 18th century, often reflecting ancient beliefs but taking new formal expression. Such works were largely dedicated to acquiring, holding, and controlling supernatural force flowing from plants and animals, the deified natural elements, or legendary culture heroes, and also reflecting the bravery of the wearer. The garments are “additive,” with diverse ornaments, charms, and talismans attached. In the first half of the 19th century such shirts were minimally tailored with partly open seams holding sections of untrimmed hide, including legs hanging down the sides. Strips of bold black and white beadwork recall porcupine quill panels of earlier tribal tradition; ermine tails signaled wealth and authority; and hair fringes were from the owner and his warrior friends as tokens of brothership. Hair from a favorite warhorse might also be added. The quilled medallion symbolizes the circle of the universe, placing the owner and his people in the center of creation. Worn into battle or in triumphal festivals, these long trailing garments invested the wearer with power and a fierce, theatrical panache. — Richard Townsend, Recent Acquisition, Member’s Magazine (Art Institute of Chicago, Jan./Feb., 2006).