Amerindian Head I 1941
Amerindian Head I portrays a young Indigenous girl encountered by Sullivan in 1941 while she was visiting her friend Louise Renaud (b. 1922) and her family at their cottage on Lake Ouimet in the Laurentian Mountains, north of Montreal. As she recalled, “It was a wonder for me to be allowed to paint this little girl and her sister.”
The girl’s face, with its dark, piercing eyes and ruby-red lips, occupies the greater part of the composition. She is set against a background that resembles Indigenous decorative weave patterns. Sullivan marked her subject’s face with painted dashes in red, violet, and blue. Her use of colour—borrowed from French modern masters, particularly Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Henri Matisse (1869–1954), and André Derain (1880–1954)—paradoxically constituted a homage to Indigenous people, who had traditionally integrated art and patterns in every aspect of their lives, including in the decoration of their bodies.
This small oil painting was made during the first year of Sullivan’s studies at the École des beaux-arts in Montreal. It was shown in the spring of 1943, as part of the first group exhibition Sullivan participated in, Les Sagittaires at Montreal’s Dominion Gallery of Fine Art. The subject stood out among the portraits of family members and friends exhibited by many other artists. It testified to her desire to escape bourgeois social constraints by identifying with the Other and tapping into what was then called “primitivism”—the recourse to techniques or motifs inspired by non-European traditions. This painting is one of Sullivan’s favourite works from her student years; she has never sold it and she keeps it in her studio.