Eanger Irving Couse was a Saginawian known internationally as an artist who portrayed that phase of Americana relating to the Indian.
Couse, who customarily used his middle name instead of his first name, was born in East Saginaw on September 3, 1886, in a house at the southwest corner of Norman and Fifth, in an area now referred to as northeast Saginaw. He attended Crary and Saginaw High School but dropped out of school when he was 16 to earn one hundred dollars to go to art school. He studied at the Chicago Art Institute for just three months until his money ran out and he had to return to Saginaw. He was still determined to become an artist and the next fall he enrolled in the National Academy of Design in New York, where he won the first prize Elliott Silver Medal for his drawing of a faun and the second prize Suydam Bronze Medal for a life drawing. After two years in New York, he came back to Saginaw again and worked for a year to earn enough money to study in Paris.
He then entered the Academie Julian, the largest and best private art academy in Paris, where he studied under William Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. Bouguereau took a particular interest in the young American and Couse recalled him as “very kind and interested in his pupils, a fine painter and a superb draftsman.” During vacations, he and fellow students found painting subjects in the French countryside. In his six years at the Academie Julian, Couse won three student prizes and had his work accepted by the prestigious Paris Salon.
In Paris, Couse met another American art student, the talented Virginia Walker. They were married in 1889. Virginia recognized his superior talent, gave up her own studies and devoted the rest of her life to aiding his career. Her intelligent criticism of his work was a major factor in his rapid advancement.
Virginia’s father was a prosperous cattleman on a spread in Washington state. When the young couple returned to the United States in the early 1890s, they visited there. Couse had been interested in Indians since his boyhood days in Saginaw and now he had his first experience painting members of the nearby Klikitat, Umatilla and Yakima tribes. Most painters of that era devoted their canvases to showing the Native Americans’ savagery and supposed lust for wanton killing. Couse wanted to depict the inner life of his subjects as peaceful dwellers in their own scene, given to poetic and philosophical interludes.
However, Couse had a lot of difficulty getting these people to pose for him. They believed that if an image was made of them, they would die. Little by little, Couse gained their confidence. His most famous painting of a northwestern Indian, “Klikitat Medicine Man,” was done in 1898, but they were still reluctant to be painted or photographed. In 1902, Couse happened to meet an artist friend, Ernest Blumenschein, and mentioned his problem. Blumenschein told him about the Indians of Taos, New Mexico, where he had a studio. They were a handsome people, he told Couse, and were willing models. Taos itself was a place of beautiful vistas, blue skies and rugged mountains. Couse packed up his family, which now included son Kibby, born in 1894, and headed for New Mexico.
He found a people who lived in two great pueblos, seven stories high, on each side of the Taos River. They led peaceful lives, sharing the fruits of the land. Couse developed a real affinity for them and was alike respected and trusted. In the early 1900s, Couse bought an old convent and established a permanent home and studio in the valley near the Taos pueblos. He soon became an institution in the Taos tribe, regarded as a benefactor of the Indians of the region. He also maintained a studio in New York City until 1928 when he moved permanently to Taos.
He became known and recognized, both in professional circles and with the public, as a foremost painter of the American Indian. He is probably best known for the paintings he did for the Santa Fe Railway. Between 1914 and 1936, the railway commissioned 22 of his paintings which they used as advertising on calendars and on the menus in its dining cars. He won sixteen major awards for his work, including medals and an honorable mention at the great expositions in Buffalo, St. Louis and San Francisco.
He was elected to the National Academy of Art in 1902. His stable disposition, so unusual in an artist, made him very popular with his associates. He was often asked to become president of the academy but refused because he felt he wasn’t good at public speaking, a talent required by that position.
He was a founding member and the first president of the Taos Society of Artists, a group dedicated to portraying the people and land of the area. He and Virginia were noted for their hospitality and the door was always open to friends and colleagues.
His works were exhibited all over the country and are hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Milwaukee Art Institute and many other museums as well as private collections. The Saginaw Art Museum has a considerable collection of Couse’s works on display, and the Saginaw Club features several, one being a portrait of an Indian, Chief David Shoppenagon, who was born and raised in the Saginaw area.
Eanger Irving Couse died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1936 at the age of 69.