Sketch of the Sun Dance: Drawn by Will Crawford; Gifted to James Cagney in 1943

The Sketch of the Sun Dance is an early 20TH Century pencil drawing by Will Crawford, renown American artist, born 1869, died 1944. Will Crawford was a Master artist who specialized in pen and ink drawings and illustrations. Mr. Crawford’s career as a commercial artist began in New Jersey when he worked for the Newark newspaper, "CALL". He went on to draw for popular magazines of the period as he demonstrated his excellence in humor as well as his capability for illustrating dramatic action. Mr. Crawford worked for Life, Redbook, Century, Everybody's Magazine, Puck, Collier's, McClure's, Scribner's, and Leslie's. Additionally, Mr. Crawford provided his art for a number of books, many of which were written with a historical or Western theme, among them: Paul Bunyan and His Blue Ox The Romance of Rosy Ridge, Pigs is Pigs, The Opening of the West, History of America, The Story of Colorado, The Great American Pie Company, Skunny Wundy and Other Indian Tales, Woven with the Ship. During this time, Mr. Crawford developed a friendship with Charles Russell who admired Crawford’s fine pen and pencil line work.

The Sketch of the Sun Dance is a single piece of incredible art that presents a number of  related vignettes depicting American Plains Indians participating in the Sun Dance, a religious ritual that Crawford notes was a part of the Plains Indian life prior to 1905, when the US government suppressed it. The vignettes show many of the historically documented methods of inflicting self-torture during the ceremony, and of brother Indians providing assistance and support to those undergoing the agonizing ordeal: piercings in the chest muscles or shoulder-blade muscles; use of dragged buffalo skulls; suspension from tree limbs or high supports; being drug by other Indians on horseback.

We believe that the pencil drawing by Will Crawford, titled as “Sketch of the Sun Dance”, was a gift to actor James Cagney from Will Crawford, Cagney’s life-long friend. Mr. Crawford inscribed the sketch to “Jim” on “Aug 19, 1943”, and signed it “Yours Ever and Ever, Bill Crawford”. Records document the relationship between Crawford and Cagney, beginning with their lives in Free Acres, Berkeley Heights, New Jersey in the 1920s, Cagney’s periodic financial support of Crawford during the later years, and Cagney’s interest in Crawford’s art (perhaps as a patron; certainly as a close friend) during and after Crawford’s life.

The Sketch of the Sun Dance is available “as found” in New Mexico in 2012 but with 2014 conservation matting and framing. It was framed originally by Mr. Craford or Mr. Cagney with “golden oak” finish quarter-sawn oak with a glass front. It is now framed in a dark finish quarter sawn oak frame with a museum quality, non-acid matte and a UV blocking museum glass front. A brass plaque, original to the first frame, is centered on the lower horizontal element of the new frame. We can’t determine when Mr. Crawford drew the sketch, but the inscription to James Cagney suggests that it was somewhat “vintage” at the time of presentation to Mr. Cagney in 1943. Finally, we do not know if Mr. Crawford actually witnessed a Sun Dance ceremony in late 1800s or early 1900s, but it seems that he created the sketch from a witness’s or participant’s narration to him. Regardless, the Sketch of the Sun Dance is an intense and realistic representation of a significant religious element of the Plains Indians’ ceremonies and a wonderful expression of Will Crawford’s friendship with James Cagney. This is a museum piece and worthy of inclusion in a superior collection of American Western and Indian art.

Michael L. Talton

L & M Enterprises USA LLC