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Wooden portrait mask with red face painting likely representing a male ancestor - Donald Ellis Gallery

Portrait Mask

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1840

wood, human hair, red, black and white paint

height: 8 ¾"

Inventory # N2064


acquired by the Thomson Collection now at the Art Gallery of Ontario


The Leendert Van Lier Collection, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Leendert Van Lier (1910-1995) was a renowned dealer of fine and tribal art.  He began with the firm Kustzaal Van Lier in 1950, on the Rokin in Amsterdam. Later he worked as a private dealer, from 1955 to 1961 in Utrecht,  from 1961 to 1968 in Veere, Zeeland, and from 1968 until his death in Blaricum.


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2003, pg. 3
Brasser, Ted. J. Native American Clothing: An Illustrated History. Toronto: Firefly Books, 2009, pg. 290


For a mask likely by the same hand collected on Haida Gwaii in 1879 by Israel W. Powell now in the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Ottawa, No.VII-B-928A (S85-3284) See: Haida Art, MacDonald, CMC, Hull, Quebec, 1996, plate 53

Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon – See: A World of Faces, Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians, Malin, Timber Press, Portland, 1978, plate 55, for an example identified as Tsimshian

A similar portrait mask may be seen in a pre-1902 photograph taken at the Kaigani Haida village of Klinkwan (University of Washington Photography Collection, negative 457 – See:  Pipes That Won’t Smoke, Coal That Won’t Burn, Sheehan, Glenbow Museum, 1981, pl. 11             

Haida face painting such as that shown on this mask may be seen in an in situ photograph taken in 1890 at Skidegate by the Reverend Charles Harrison (CMC 71-6778)

Unlike many forms of Northwest Coast masks which typically display varying degrees of abstraction, portrait masks are so-called due to their lifelike quality.  They appear to be directly based on the facial characteristics of Northwest Coast native peoples, in some cases specific individuals.  Often asymmetrically painted, as in this example, portrait masks can be readily compared to ceremonial face painting patterns recorded by 19th century ethnologists and the occasional early photograph.

This extraordinary mask exhibits many arrestingly realistic features, particularly in the areas of the nose and mouth.  The surface of the wood appears to sensitively mirror the shape of human cheeks, with prominent cheek bones and the soft ridges where the cheeks meet the nostril flares.  The addition of human hair on the temples, the fine dashed lines of black paint indicating a moustache and beard, and the naturalistic carved ears also add to the strong sense of realism seen in the carving, and confirm the portrait-like quality of this engaging sculpture.

Portrait masks were used in dramatic re-enactments by secret societies to tell stories relating to family histories, often representing ancestors who took part in historical or mythical events. One has only to imagine the impact on an enthralled audience, in the time before photography, as a dancer wearing this startlingly lifelike mask emerged from the shadows to enact the living history of his people.

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