James Wehn’s near-life-size historic bronze statue of Chief Seattle, the city’s namesake, invites visitors to sit by the fountain pool in downtown Seattle’s Tilikum Place Park and ponder the history of the city and sculpture.
In the early 1900s, during the first stage of the Denny Hill Regrade, the city street improvement budget included funds for the city’s first commission for a statue. In 1907, the committee awarded the commission to Wehn, a local 24-year-old sculptor who proposed a full-length portrait of Chief Seattle. He based his original plaster cast on the only surviving photographic portrait of the chief, taken in 1864. Wehn became upset and threw his model into Elliott Bay after he discovered that the city planned to hire an inexperienced local firm to cast his statue. He only agreed to create a second model after the city decided to hire a New York firm to cast the bronze sculpture. The artwork was finally unveiled by Chief Seattle’s great-great-granddaughter in an impressive ceremony on Founders’ Day, Nov. 13, 1912.
The sculpture stands atop a roughly hewn stone pedestal inset with bear heads that spout water from their mouths into a pool below. The chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes raises his hand in a gesture of greeting, recalling the amicable relationship he established with early pioneers and explorers. In 1975, the fountain pool was enlarged and two 12-ton granite boulders were shaped by Seattle sculptor Richard Beyer to fit into the rim of the pool.
James Wehn was Seattle’s first resident classical sculptor and the first chairman of the University of Washington’s sculpture department. He also created the portrait bust of Chief Seattle in Pioneer Park and a profile medallion of Chief Seattle, adopted as the official city seal, which was enlarged in bronze and installed at the former Public Safety Building in 1950.
– Joan Peterson, Public Art
IMAGE: James When; Chief Seattle; 1912; cast, gilded bronze and granite. Located at Tilikum Place Park, Fifth Avenue and Denny Way. Photo by Spike Mafford Photography.
Weekly Art Hit is featuring artworks every week from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s. to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the city’s public art program.