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Carved wooden feast bowl in the form of a seal with dark oxidized patina - Donald Ellis Gallery
Human figure carved in relief on the belly of a seal-shaped feast bowl - Donald Ellis Gallery

Seal Bowl

Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

ca. 1800-1820


width: 10 ¾"

Inventory # CN3666



The Berthusen Collection, Lynden Pioneer Museum, Lynden, Washington State


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2011, pgs. 12-13


For another example possibly by the same hand collected by James Swan in 1883 at Masset – See: Museum of the American Indian, No.88/835 and Sturtevant, William (ed.) Boxes and Bowls: Decorated Containers by Nineteenth Century Haida, Tlingit, Bella Bella, and Tsimshian Indian Artists. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974, pl. 12

For a 19th century copy of this bowl see: Bonham’s and Butterfields, San Francisco, December 14, 2009, lot 4200

The Eugene and Claire Thaw Collection, New York Historical Association – See: Coe, Ralph T., Brydon, Sherry, Vincent, Gilbert T. (eds.) Art of the North American Indians: The Thaw Collection. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000, pg. 338, pl. T179

The adopted English term “grease dish” refers to vessels of wood or horn made to contain edible oils that have been served with dried fish and meats during feasts and potlatch celebrations on the Northwest Coast for centuries. Eulachon (or candlefish) oil was rendered in large wooden vats from the flesh of small river-run fish. Alternatively, seal oil was produced from the thick blubber of various coastal seal species that inhabited the cold northern Pacific waters. Smaller bowls of this type were often personal property, used by individuals or family groups on a daily basis. Decorated bowls were important property of the nobility, whose wealth and influence enabled them to commission works from the artist class.

The image of a seal was often used for grease bowls, in part as homage to the spirit of the creature that was hunted as the source of the oil. This elegant bowl is a very early example, evidenced by the style of the design work as well as the darkness of the patina, formed by oxidized oil that has saturated the entire vessel over time. The subtle amount of rise to the ends, the carving of four fine grooves just below the rim on the interior, and the compact style of both the sculpture of the seal’s head and the design work on the sides of the bowl also indicate the bowl’s early origin. The pectoral flippers of the seal on the sides and the ovoid joints of the tail flippers illustrate the old archaic design style, incorporating broad formlines and minimal carved-out areas, also tending to be an earlier characteristic. At the rear, there were once likely hind flippers that flanked the triangular tail, but these appear to have gone missing at an early date. The beautifully executed relief-carved human figure on the breast of the seal is an uncommon feature, one appearing only in a handful of related examples, adding an extraordinary dimension to an already impressive vessel.

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