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  • Richard Gay
Stephanie Pratt . American Indians in British Art, 1700-1840. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005. 198 pp., 16 pp. of plates and illustrations. Cloth, $29.95.

Senior lecturer at the University of Plymouth, Devon, United Kingdom, and tribal member of the Crow Creek Dakota Sioux, art historian Stephanie Pratt offers a rich perspective on the subject of American Indians in British art. This book continues scholarly developments of examining representations of the Other in the visual arts, but the author's Native American heritage perhaps offers a unique perspective on the subject. The book is valuable for its synthesis of major interpretive themes, its unique focus on British art, and especially its emphasis on American Indians as active participants on the eighteenth-century political stage.

In five chapters the author chronologically addresses the complex development of her subject, tracing the perception of the American Indian from an allegorical abstraction of the Americas to active participants in contemporary politics and finally as a nostalgic trope for a changing way of life and the possible demise of Indian culture. In doing so she remains constantly aware of the Eurocentric mindset responsible for the imagery she explores, a psyche that could only understand the Indian within the context of European expectations and British colonial desires. This dynamic, according to the author, reproduced "the Indian as a conceptual alternative to European values" (150). The awareness that European depictions of Native Americans are always mediated and therefore distorted views of Indian culture is a positive feature of the book.

The monograph's content can be summarized as follows. Chapter 1, "The Allegorical Representation of America," explores both male and female Indians as symbols of a distant land, a function of the images that spans the chronological period covered in the book. Chapter 2, "Warfare, Diplomacy, and Visual Representation, ca. 1700–1760," analyzes depictions of Indians as active participants in contemporary history, serving as valuable allies, diplomats, and exotic visitors to English courts. This is followed by "History Painting and American Indians: Benjamin West and Others, 1760–1804," in which the author suggests West's depictions of Indians present a standardized type or "generic Indian," even though the artist owned Indian objects and was distinguished among British artists by his colonial birth and firsthand knowledge of American Indians. Notably, Vivian Green Fryd's 1995 article "Rereading the Indian in The Death of General Wolfe" is surprisingly lacking from the discussion of West's well-known work. Chapter 4, "Secret Diplomacy and Uneasy Alliances: The British and American Indian Relationships in the Revolutionary and Post-Revolutionary War Periods, 1774–1815," examines the changing views and depictions of Indians [End Page 238] with regard to their declining political importance to England. The final chapter, "Travel, Observation, and the Pathos of Decline," examines the late-eighteenth-century sentimental trope of the "dying" Indian, utilizing rich sources like travel and scientific accounts. It explores cultural contamination and the perception of a "doomed" race of "noble savages," which contributed to a nineteenth-century romanticized view of the fading past. This remarkably ambitious work is undertaken in just over 150 pages plus scholarly apparatus, which is an indication of the selective nature of examples presented and the depth of analysis.

In the introduction the author states her intention "to work with images that . . . [she] consider[s] to be definitive of . . . wider processes," which she rightly contends "displace the lived experience of American Indian culture and substitute for it a simulacrum that better accorded with European expectations" (9). Such analysis is admittedly commonplace in art historical studies. However, the generalized nature of the author's goal is at times in conflict with the in-depth analysis of some of the works of art. The reader at times gets the impression that the works discussed were chosen not so much as typical examples of a given theme of a chapter but as an opportunity to expand upon the historical subjects depicted. Certainly, the historical background is essential to understanding the work, and the author does an excellent job developing these elements, but more elaborative analysis of specific content found within the works of art would have been an asset to the book...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1828
Print ISSN
0095-182X
Pages
pp. 238-240
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-18
Open Access
No
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