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An early historic Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico

pottery “Rain God” figure, c. 1885

A UNIQUE AND INTERESTING CHAPTER in the tourist-era history of the Southwest are the so-called “Tesuque Rain Gods”; pottery figures which were almost certainly invented or at least highly embellished by a European immigrant Santa Fe Indian trader of Jewish descent named Jacob (Jake) Gold in the late 1870’s/early 1880s to fill what he saw as a potentially prosperous niche in the then-rapidly expanding tourist “curio” trade. These so-called Rain God figures are based at least in part upon the earlier Pueblo tradition of figural pottery of animal and human effigy figures which were made at both Tesuque and nearby Cochiti pueblos beginning around the mid-19th century. These are the two Indian Pueblos which are closest to Santa Fe. The enterprising Jake Gold expanded upon that earlier tradition and commissioned potters at nearby Tesuque to make charming and somewhat exaggerated “Rain God” figures holding pottery vessels in their laps like this one or with open mouths as if singing or making other cute and exaggerated facial and physical gestures such as “Hear no evil”, “Speak no evil”, “See no evil” sets of figures.

The earlier iterations of Rain God figures from around 1880-1900 such as this one were generally larger in size and mostly unpainted, but were often covered as in this case with the traditional, beautiful Tesuque golden micaceous clay slip. Later Rain gods were often elaborately painted after firing in a variety of poster paints in increasingly bright and garish colors and complex designs. The figures also grew progressively smaller in time and by the 1920’s and 30’s most were about half the size of these larger, earlier ones. There was a thriving local market for these figures through the various Santa Fe trading companies; Gold’s, Candelario’s, Gan’s etc. who sold them to visiting tourists in Santa Fe as well as across the country through mail order catalogs.

Statue of the ancient Aztec Rain God “Tlaloc” at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

Historic Fred Harvey Company postcard entitled

“Tesuque Pueblo woman making rain gods”

Copyright Fred Harvey Company

Not everyone was quite as enchanted with the Tesuque Rain Gods as the hordes of Southwestern tourists were, many Museum curators felt that opportunistic merchants were encouraging Native potters to make cheap touristy, assembly-line kitsch at the expense of producing their excellent traditional Pueblo pottery. That situation has gradually changed over time and these early Rain God figures are now increasingly appreciated and valued for their place in the region’s artistic and cultural history, their uniqueness and charm and the considerable skill involved in making them. Over the nearly 140 years they have been made, they have become “traditional” themselves in a certain sense.

This particular figure measures a very good-sized 8 1/4” in height and is 4” in width at the widest point and it is in generally excellent original condition for its 130-plus years of age with some minor surface cracking to the micaceous slip and some abrasions and small dings here and there. There is also a slight chip to one side of the figure’s nose which could be restored if desired but we believe it is inconsequential and would recommend leaving it as is. There is a somewhat unslipped area at the back rear of the figure where it seems as if the micaceous slip simply wasn’t applied. There is also an interesting-looking large old unidentified collection or inventory number of “72” affixed with by two old-fashioned stickers to the lower back of the figure.

And we can personally attest that this Tesuque figure is especially good at bringing down the rain not that that was ever their original intent. As it happens, and this is a true story, just ten minutes after we unpacked him here the skies opened up for the first giant monsoonal rain of the season. It poured hard for two hours straight and this after a couple of particularly scorching summer months with no rain at all. It was eerily reminiscent of the true story recounted below of the arrival of the giant carved stone statue of “Tlaloc” the Aztec’s “Supreme God of the Rain” which is now on prominent display at the front entrance to Mexico City’s renowned National Museum of Anthropology.

“It was night when Tlaloc arrived in Mexico City; yet 25,000 people awaited him in the Zócalo. The city was prepared as if for a fiesta; lights were on everywhere, traffic was stopped and the streets were thronged. Ironically, the arrival of the rain god was greeted  by the heaviest storm ever recorded for this ordinarily dry season.”

(Mexico: The National Museum of Anthropology

- Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, 1968)

The message here seems perfectly clear. Want the blessings of rain? Get yourself a “Rain God”.

Price $1,150

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