The artist at work: A new portrait comes to life

For some patrons and collectors, one of the most anticipated aspects of a John Gawne painting is when the artist sends a “progress shot” (a photo of the work to date) from his Oak Park studio.

“The way a portrait comes to life when John is painting – the progress from day to day – is really stunning,” said Chicago attorney Terrence M. Johnson, who owns several Gawne originals.

“Usually there’s a great story behind the picture, like this one of David Bald Eagle, and I always ask John to write a few personal remarks – in his own hand - on the back of the canvas.

Below you can view a day-to-day progress of Gawne's canvas magic with the David Bald Eagle portrait.

Profile of an American Warrior:
David Bald Eagle

In many Native American cultures, naming was a lifelong custom. It was not unusual for great warriors or chiefs to accrue as many as seven or eight additional names during their lives, each to commemorate an exploit or act of heroism. If such were still the practice today, David (Beautiful) Bald Eagle’s complete Lakota name probably would fill two pages.

Several years ago, during one of his frequent visits to South Dakota, the artist John Gawne had occasion to meet and talk with the legendary chief … and was immediately inspired to create this portrait.

Gawne said he still gets “goose bumps” recalling the stories.

He was born the grandson of White Bull, who had led one of those immortal charges on Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. “My grandfather was my school room,” David Bald Eagle told an interviewer. “I didn’t talk English until I was 12.” Five years after White Bull’s death, in 1939, the young Bald Eagle convinced his father to let him join the U. S. Army’s 4th Cavalry, purely for the adventure (and because liked the uniform). It was an ironic and fateful decision.

When war broke out, true to his noble lineage Bald Eagle re-enlisted and – over the next four years – saw more action than all of his forebears combined, yet this time as an American warrior. Sergeant Bald Eagle became a code-talking paratrooper in one of the most storied combat units of military history: the 82nd Airborne. Decorated for bravery in the Anzio campaign, Bald Eagle was wounded parachuting behind enemy lines on D-Day.

Returning home victorious, the handsome veteran later appeared in Hollywood movies such as “Flaming Arrow” with Errol Flynn and “Into the West.” He became a revered Chief of the Minneconjou Lakota … and a global ambassador for his people.

For nearly five decades, Bald Eagle was accorded the high distinction of leading the Days of ’76 parade in Deadwood, South Dakota. In the late 1950s, as a star of the “Casey Tibbs Wild West Show” touring Europe, he met his remarkable wife Josee, herself an actress and a native of Belgium, a country Bald Eagle had helped liberate only a few years earlier.

“I had to paint this great man,” John Gawne said. “You hear the word ‘legend’ a lot these days,” Gawne said, “but here’s someone who really defines it. David Bald Eagle embodies the entire American story. I was awestruck by how humble and approachable he was. “And with everything he’s accomplished in his life, what he’s most proud of is that several of his children followed in his footsteps … into the Army.”

David Bald Eagle’s daughter, Major Ines Bald Eagle White, commanded a tank battalion during the Bosnia campaign. Two other children, Remi and Kili, also became members of the elite 82nd Airborne.*

John Gawne’s portrait of Chief David Bald Eagle (30 x 20, oil on linen) has been accepted by the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana, for auction in March, 2007.

* Thanks to the Rapid City Journal for background information in this article.


Email John here.