Sunday, May 8, 2022

Imagining Native Americans

If you are a passionate collector, you often purchase more works of art than you can fit into your home and that is what closets are for!

I was doing a little spring cleaning and came across this engraving we bought many years ago when we visited a London drawings dealer. It neither fit into his inventory nor in our collection but the image of an imaginary Indian in headdress we found amusing. The print is signed Albert Welti fec, the artist, and Hch. Wetteroth impr., the printer. Title translated from the German, “The Poor Sinners’ Entry into Heaven”. Albert Welti (1862-1912) was a painter and etcher, born in Zurich and died in Bern. Except for some studies in Munich it seems he did not travel and presumably had never seen a native American.

The print inspired me to look into the subject of Indians seen through the eyes of non-Native artists.

What is believed to be the earliest rendering of Native Americans was discovered only a decade ago in the collection of the Vatican in a fresco by the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio (1454-1513). Between 1492 and 1494 the artist was working in the Borgia apartments. During the restoration of the fresco an indistinct detail began to emerge of two naked men with headdresses. The director of the Vatican Museum, Antonio Paolucci posited that these were Native Americans as its date coincides with Christopher Columbus’ description of the inhabitants after his first trip to America. Here is an image of the entire fresco and the detail referred to.

In 1975-76 in celebration of our bicentennial the National Gallery in Washington D.C. together with the Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France in Paris, put on a traveling exhibition called, “The European Vision of America”. In it there was a tapestry over 11 by 16 feet designed by two Flemish artists and woven in Brussels in the late 17th century. Here you see the image of the Indian Princess mentioned below who became the standard symbol of the Americas for Europeans.

The Metropolitan Museum, which came rather late to collecting Native American Art, did an exhibition in 2018-19 called, “Artistic Encounters with Indigenous America.” The Museum’s description of the show states “European artists invented a visual vocabulary to depict America, creating long-lasting stereotypes such as the ‘Indian Princess’ and the ‘noble savage”. Of the 45 works from the Met collection in the show, this one seems very appropriate for our time. It is a drawing by an Anglo- American artist, Frederick Styles Agate (1803-1844) titled “Indians Lamenting the Approach of the White Man” ca.1830.

On this point present day Native Americans can agree. Note this canvas by Cochiti artist and cartoonist, Ricardo Caté.

The self-taught American artist George Catlin ((1796-1872) took a documentary approach. He had practiced law briefly and became interested in Native America when a delegation of Plains Indians arrived in Philadelphia on their way to Washington D.C. in 1828. Two years later he decided to move out west to St. Louis to record the Native American heritage before it disappeared in the rapid advance of the Anglo-American frontier. In 1839 he took his paintings and artifacts on tour through European capitals. British engravers created hand colored lithograph of the Catlin paintings that were disseminated far and wide feeding the fascination with a culture that was strange and new to Europeans.

In 2018-2019 the St. Louis University Museum of Art did an exhibition, “Race and Representation: Euro-American Depictions of Native Americans and Their Culture.” It included “The Buffalo Hunt, Chase” and “The Buffalo Hunt Surround” from Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, engraved by the British artist John McGahey in 1844. Did Catlin foresee that Indian hunters would be replaced by Anglos firing from trains for sport and decimating the herds?

Most people, even in this country, are unaware of the rich culture of Native America. We left New York in ignorance, since the Indians represent just .2% of the population in the entire state; to live in New Mexico where they represent 10% and there are 8 pueblo tribes living within an hour and a half of our house. You do not have to leave this country to learn about another culture, and leave the fantasies behind.

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