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Expressive carving of a male figure with rich brown patina from the Thule culture | Donald Ellis Gallery


Western Alaska

1200 - 1700 AD

marine mammal ivory

height: 4"

Inventory # CE4281

Please contact the gallery for more information.


Excavated north of Nome, near Teller, Alaska, in September 2010
Donald Ellis Gallery, Dundas, ON
Private collection, Toronto, ON


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2011, pgs. 28-29

The Thule Eskimo art style traces its roots back to the Dorset tradition in Greenland. Though often stressing utility over appearance, the finest examples of Thule ivory carving prove capable of rising to great heights of artistic merit and sculptural complexity.

Though Thule artists generally portray their figurative subjects standing upright with both hands held either to the abdomen or behind the back, here the carver has chosen to portray one hand in each position, thus adding an unusually dynamic quality to an otherwise more typically static frontal pose.

The fully modelled arms and legs are particularly well articulated here. The slight bend to the knees and carefully modelled calf muscles contribute to the life-like quality of the figure. The legs appear to be intentionally "heavy" in proportion to the rest of the figure, presumably to add strength to the carving in order to avoid breakage. This is clearly a deliberate decision on the part of the artist, as he demonstrates a sure sense of design and proportion throughout the rest of his work.

The beautifully subtle features of the figure's face are simple but expressive, and clearly the work of a master carver. A few essential details capture the essence of the human character. An incised line around the perimeter of the scalp likely depicts a brow-band in a style known to be worn by Thule men. Additional engraved details delineate a belt at the waist with what appear to be three hanging strips at the sides and rear, and a triangular fur loincloth in front.

The upper torso is clearly unclothed, with the musculature of the back and chest beautifully defined. The large engraved "V" motif on his chest is often found on Thule figures, which is sometimes interpreted as a tattoo design. Alternatively, it may be an "amulet band" or strap.

Overall, the figure is dressed only in undergarments, or "indoor clothes", rather than in a full suit of furs that would be worn outside the comfort of the house. This either suggests that the artist intended to depict his subject in an intimate "at home" mode, or that his carving may have been intended to have actual miniature fur outer clothing added to it.

As evidenced here, the finest Thule artists excelled at combining an eye for streamlined simplicity with carefully observed naturalistic representation. The essential forms are present, though stylized, resulting in an idealized image that retains its animate qualities.

Bill Wolf, November 2010

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