The Hon. Dorothy Brett

Massacre in the Canyon of Death: Vision of the Sun God


Not on display

The Hon. Dorothy Brett 1883–1977
Oil paint and spangles on board
Support: 883 × 679 mm
Presented by the artist 1959

Technique and condition

The support is hardboard with a white priming, which seems uneven in places, suggesting that the priming may have been applied by the artist. There is an overall matte appearance to the painting that is suggestive of an absorbent priming layer.

Much of the painting is thinly painted with little to no impasto, using slightly diluted paints that have been mixed wet-in-wet on the support. Confident and rapid brush strokes are evident in these thinly painted regions that comprise much of the painting. The combination of rapid brush strokes and extensive wet-in-wet working suggests that the painting may have been completed fairly quickly.

The face of the sun god represents an area where the artist has applied paint more thickly before using a stiff brush to create a distinctive stippled texture. Licks of thickly applied yellow and orange paint was used to create a halo of flames around the face of the sun god. The artist has then used a sgraffito technique using a blunt implement such as a palette knife or the tip of the handle of a paint brush to scratch away some of the yellow and orange flames whilst the paint was still wet in order to reveal the underlying green paint. This was done using a confident swirling motion which adds further texture and movement to the image of the sun god. To complete the face of the sun god, thin white brush strokes cascade down from an open mouth. These white brush strokes have been adorned using plastic spangles which reflect the light and create a sparkly effect. The glue used to adhere the spangles was applied over the white brush strokes in a generous linear fashion and then spangles were placed individually onto the adhesive at regular intervals. Spangles have also been applied to the eyes of the sun god. The adhesive has yellowed slightly with age, and appears slightly darker and more noticeable than it would have originally.

The artist has used a combination of iron oxide, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, cadmium orange, titanium white, and copper arsenate pigments, which are all common artists’ pigments. Barium sulphate, calcium carbonate have been identified in the paints which are commonly used extenders. Magnesium carbonate which is an extender used by Winsor & Newton (a major manufacturer of artists’ materials) was detected in the cadmium yellow paints. Many of the colours are water sensitive, which is a common phenomenon observed in unvarnished oil paintings of the twentieth century and is an area of ongoing research (see the Cleaning Modern Oil Paints project). The painting is currently unframed and unglazed.

Further reading
Gillian Elinor, ‘Dorothy Brett's Paintings: From Bloomsbury to Taos’ Woman's Art Journal Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1991–Winter, 1992), pp.9–14.
Sean Hignett, ‘Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico’, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1984.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was carried out as part of an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Tate, 2013–2016.

Catalogue entry

Inscr. ‘D. E. Brett 1958’ b.l.
Oil and spangles on hardboard, 34 3/4×26 3/4 (88·5×68).
Presented by the artist 1959.
Exh: Oakes Purchase Prize Exhibition, Stables Gallery, Taos, 1958, and elsewhere in Texas and New Mexico.

The name Canyon del Muerte (Canyon of Death) was given to a side branch of the Canyon of Chelly after a massacre had taken place there during the Spanish Conquest. The artist wrote (17 September 1959): ‘The Navajo men before leaving for a hunting expedition placed their women and children in a high cave on the side of the towering cliff.... Soon after they left the Spanish soldiers rode through the Canyon. An old woman ... jeered and spat, thus giving away their hiding place. The soldiers then climbed up the opposite side of the Canyon and fired into the cave until all the women and children were killed. My painting shows the dying women seeing a vision of the Sun God as they die.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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