- British and Indian Identities in a Picture by Benjamin West
Despite our best intentions, Indians in pictures remain invisible to us. Traditional historians of European or American art look at an American Indian image from the viewpoint of the artist and his culture, yet often with too narrow a focus. For instance, many art historians tirelessly apply to images the notion that artists equated Indians with Rousseau’s “noble savages.” Accordingly they see pictured Indians as a panoply of types deriving from the classical canon: Apollo Belvederes in Indian dress. This monocular vision blinds us to variation between depictions and flattens images individually. When applied indiscriminately, it nullifies the images. 1 More radical art history, although it criticizes the artist for cultural bias, nonetheless arrives at an outcome curiously similar to more traditional approaches. In an attempt to view images of Indians from a broader cultural perspective, it condemns the “noble savage” depiction as ethnocentrism. However, it still buys the premise that artists portrayed Indians only as types. Despite the best of culturally sensitive intentions, pictures of Indians are seen to vary only between the stereotype chosen—either the noble or the ignoble savage. 2
This more polemical approach has usually focused on the anonymous Indians in history or genre scenes, but it has also been applied to portraiture. Here it has had the most radically reductive results. This viewpoint often insists so willfully on seeing portraits as stereotypes, and denies individuality so rigidly, that portraits are no longer allowed to be portraits in any sense. We seem able to accept that portraits of white men do not portray the complete reality of the sitter, and may still be images with complexity, interest, and even insight about the subject. Yet we seem to expect images of Indians to be truthful in a completely different, and impossible, way: it seems that unless these images convey a total understanding of the subject’s [End Page 283] reality, and from the Indian’s own cultural perspective, they are decried as inadequate. The traditional art historian seeks to find a classical exemplar in the depiction of the American Indian, the less traditional one, a cultural stereotype. With both approaches, a single vision is imposed and in the end the pictures are erased. 3
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Unless we are simply to give up looking at these portrait images altogether, we need to find new ways to see them. This paper will attempt a new look at one such image, the monumental double portrait by Benjamin West (1738–1820) of a British official and an American Indian at the National Gallery of Art (fig. 1). 4 Because the history of the painting has been obscured—its date has been conjectural and the identity of the sitters uncertain—the meanings assigned to it have continually shifted. The sitters in the portrait have been variously identified, the seated man usually as one of the members of the British Indian Department, the standing one usually as a generalized figure symbolizing “the Indian.” Until now these identifications have had little foundation and little to recommend one over another. 5 Now, new evidence identifies both sitters.
A Mohawk chief named Karonghyontye, also known as Captain David Hill, (d. 1790) wrote a letter November 6, 1784 to Daniel Claus (1727–1787), a member of the Indian Department of the British government in Canada. Hill discussed the peace conference with the Americans he was attending in Fort Stanwix (present-day Rome, New York). In closing he mentioned two pictures:
I want you to bring back with you the picture of my late brother, John Hill. The paper tells that Thayendanegen has already paid for it. The picture of Garaghgwadiron and I, Governor Haldimand took it with him. We two really want to have one, Thayendanegen and I, if you could get another one made and bring along with you, we will...