Imagine that a heretofore-unknown tribe of Indians is discovered in the Amazon or on a remote Philippine Island. A university organizes an expedition to study the people and make a record of their culture. The party includes a doctor, a linguist, a naturalist, a cultural anthropologist and a portrait artist who brings easel, canvas, brushes and oil paints.
Ridiculous? Maybe, maybe not. This is one of the intriguing issues raised by "American Indian Portraits: Elbridge Ayer Burbank in the West (1897-1910)," an exhibition of 68 oil portraits of American Indians done at the turn of the 20th century. The show is up until July 13 at Chicago's Newberry Library.
The portraits, all ethnographically correct, depict American Indians from 26 western tribes. Also on exhibit are six Burbank drawings of Indians in Conté crayon, Burbank photographs of Western scenes, letters, and memorabilia.
Burbank worked at a moment in history when the Indians had been subjugated and were living on reservations. Official policy was assimilation and everyone (save possibly the Indians) expected that native culture would soon disappear. "Salvage ethnographers" collected Indian artifacts for museums and photographed the native way of life.
Between 1897 and 1910, Burbank recorded Indian physiognomy, personality and costume in over 1,000 oil portraits. Later, he made more than 4,000 Conté crayon drawings. Fiercely devoted to his work, he traveled all over the West, enduring much hardship and danger.
A Portrait of Geronimo
Born in 1858 near Chicago, Burbank studied at the Academy of Design (later the Art Institute of Chicago), then studied and worked in the U.S. and Europe. He opened a studio in downtown Chicago during 1892 and rapidly built a reputation for his portraits of society people and drawings of blacks.
In 1897, Burbank received a commission to paint Geronimo, the Apache leader, and journeyed to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory. He expected this to be an entertaining summer excursion. Instead, he stayed in the West for almost four months and made 19 portraits. "I have never [been] so taken with a subject as I am with these Indians," he declared. Later, he vowed to "paint every single Indian tribe in America."
Burbank's wealthy uncle, Edward Everett Ayer, financed the portrait project. Ayer, a founder of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, collected thousands of Indian artifacts for the museum, helped set up its native culture exhibitions and made major purchases of Burbank's work. Other patrons included the Smithsonian Institution; the Chicago Public Schools, which printed 10,000 reproductions of one Indian portrait for student use; and Joseph Butler, the steel executive who founded the Butler Museum of American Art in Youngstown, Oh. The Butler Museum, which originated this show, has a big Burbank collection.
When the fashion for Indian portraits passed, Burbank's fortunes declined. He continued working, but had serious financial and psychiatric problems. He died in 1949.
Burbank was an ethnographic portraitist, who worked in a style that he had learned as a student in Munich. His paintings follow a formula with the subject seated before an empty background in light shadow. The Indians wear ceremonial garments or have a blanket around their shoulders. A few are dressed in military uniforms -- white man's clothes. We see the faces straight on, in profile or in three-quarter view. At upper left is a label telling the Indian's name and tribe.
Burbank's goals were scientific, not expressive, and he added nothing to art history. His work is rather uneven, with occasional lapses in the rendering of anatomy and compositions that can range from the banal to the brilliant. Still, he merits a high rank among those who represented the American Indian. His paintings are much more complete, truthful, and humane than much other imagery of this time. No photograph could convey as much information as these paintings.
Burbank loved the West -- and the Indians -- in part because he was a social misfit. He never got along with the rich people he had to court in Chicago and preferred to paint poor blacks, who were pleased to sit for their portrait and did not expect much from him.
He saw the Indians the same way, got to know them as individual human beings and never depicted them as types. "One can't do a good natural job on the average white person," he once said. "They always want 'this put in' or 'that taken out.' The darkies are not that way. If a tooth is out, they want it out and I want to leave it out . . . And the Indians I discovered were about the same."
Burbank's portrait of Chief Black Coyote (Arapaho) suggests why Black Coyote is a leader. Calm and intelligent, he has the reserve and self-possession of someone who welcomes responsibility and expects to be listened to. Eztan-Lapa (Navajo), with her childish figure and large black eyes, is sorrowing and watchful. O-bah (Moqui), a dancer, seems almost lost behind his Katsina.
Burbank was a driven man. Not every Indian wanted to sit for him and he often twisted arms. His subjects, it seems, gave as good as they got. He had to bribe some to pose and to strike some unusual bargains. In 1897, when the Navajo Chief Tja-yo-ni wanted to be painted in his Indian clothes wearing a black silk top hat, Burbank refused. The men made a deal -- one portrait Burbank-style and a second with Tja-yo-ni wearing the top hat bedecked with eagle feathers.
The Indians did not know what other tribes looked like, so Burbank made a scrapbook from reproductions of his portraits, which he brought to each new tribe. The Indians became more cooperative when they saw what he had in mind. They spent hours poring over Burbank's images and critiquing the costumes of their confrères on other reservations.
Elbridge Ayer Burbank made a record of a conquered people. A good artist, but not a great one, he was very much a man of his time. Still, he brought the American Indian to life in skillful, truthful paintings.