The Artist Birthday Series

Tonita Peña

Today’s Artist Birthday: Tonita Peña

Tonita Peña (May 10, 1893 – September 9, 1949) was born as Quah Ah, but also used the name Tonita Vigil Peña and María Antonia Tonita Peña. She was a renowned Pueblo artist, specializing in pen and ink on paper embellished with watercolor. She was a well-known and influential Native American woman artist and art teacher of the early 1920s and 1930s.

tonita pena
Tonita Peña

Tonita Peña was the daughter of Ascensión Vigil Peña and Natividad Peña of San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico. When she was 12 years old, her mother and younger sister died, the result of complications due to the flu. Her father was unable to care for her and she was taken to Cochití Pueblo and was brought up by her aunt, Martina Vigil Montoya, a prominent Cochití Pueblo potter.

Pottery by Martina Vigil Montoya (n/d, late 1800's)
Pottery by Martina Vigil Montoya (n/d, late 1800’s)

Tonita married four times and had six children. Peña’s first marriage was at the age of 15, arranged by village elders to Juan Chavez. She had two sons, who were raised by their aunt while Peña finished school. In 1913 Peña has a second arranged marriage to fine art painter Joe Hilario Herrera who died in a mining accident, followed by Felipe Herrera, who died in 1920, and then to Epitacio Arquero, whom she married in 1922.

tonita pena and son
Tonita Peña and one of her sons, c.1910

Peña began gaining more notoriety by the end of the 1910s selling an increasing amount to her work to collectors and the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Much of this early work was done of traditional subject matter, in a style inspired by historic Native American works, however her use of an artists easel and western painting mediums gained her acceptance amongst her white contemporaries in the art world. At the age of 25 her work was being shown at museums and galleries in the Santa Fe and Albuquerque area.

"Buffalo Dance Group," by Tonita Peña, n/d
“Buffalo Dance Group,” by Tonita Peña, n/d

In the 1930s Peña was an instructor at the Santa Fe Indian School and at the Albuquerque Indian School. She was the only woman painter of the San Ildefonso Self-Taught Group, an art movement from 1900–1935 consisting of a group of Native American artists primarily from the San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.

basket dance
“San Juan Basket Dance,” by Tonita Peña, n/d

In 1931, Tonita Peña exhibited at the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts which was presented at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City. By 1932, the Whitney Museum in New York bought Peña’s painting Basket Dance for $225. This was the highest price paid up to this time for a Pueblo painting and most Native American paintings at this time were selling between $2 to $25.

"Untitled," by Tonita Peña, n/d
“Untitled,” by Tonita Peña, n/d

As an artist, she did not accept the traditional roles of women in art in Native American culture, focusing primarily on two-dimensional works on paper rather than the more accepted pottery and ceramic mediums of her contemporaries. Beyond the choice of art medium her subject matter also pushed gender boundaries. At the time she was active, only men were allowed to portray living individuals in their work. Her choice to have other’s raise some of her children, so that she could focus on completing her education, and her career was uncommon during the time period within her tribe, and in America at large.

woman tonita
Detail of a woman, by Tonita Peña, n/d

Critique of Peña can be found within the framework of studying “traditional” Native American art, versus “White patronage” supported art of Native American art. Artwork made by Native Americans and collected by White patrons served no traditional function for in Native American communities. Peña’s critics were not only the established art world, but also her own tribe. Peña created watercolor paintings that recorded sacred rituals, much of the opposition to her work, came from her fellow tribespeople who felt these were inappropriate subject matters to portray and share outside the tribe. Epitacio Arquero, Governor of the Pueblo and Peña’s husband at the time of the most heated protests, defended the subject matter saying her paintings only depicted subject matter already visible to outsiders. Peña’s work after that time did change however, choosing only to focus on events that were not secret or private in their nature.

"Bull Dance," by Tonita Peña, n/d
“Bull Dance,” by Tonita Peña, n/d

Native American art (traditional crafts, dance, music as well as modern techniques like Peña’s pen and ink with watercolor on paper) was a factor in modern Euro-Americans’ changing perspective of the aesthetic and spiritual value of Native American culture and identity. Peña’s artwork emphasized the role of women in everyday life and is credited with expanding the expectations of women in art by refusing to limit herself to the traditional female role of potter. Her artwork is part of the collections at numerous museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Dartmouth College Collection in New Hampshire, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard. She has continued to have national art exhibitions posthumously.

animal dance
“Big Game Animal Dance,” by Tonita Peña, n/d

She died on September 9, 1949 of cancer after unsuccessful radiation therapy on her adrenal glands. At Peña’s death, all of her remaining paintings and personal effects were burned in compliance with Pueblo customs. She was buried at the Cochiti Cemetery in Sandoval County, New Mexico.

San Buenaventura Mission and the Cochiti Pueblo Cemetery
San Buenaventura Mission and the Cochiti Pueblo Cemetery

On the planet Venus, large craters are named after women who influenced history, such as Clara Barton, Louisa May Alcott, Georgia O’Keeffe and Cleopatra. In 1997, a crater on the planet Venus was named after Tonita Peña.

pena crate venus2

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