- Painting Indians and Building Empires in North America, 1710–1840
William Truettner, a senior curator with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents a fascinating look at portraits of North American Indians by white artists from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The monograph’s main argument examines the changing relationship between portraits of Indians and political issues surrounding empire and imperialism. In particular, Truettner examines the shift from the “Noble Savage” painting campaign to what the author dubs the “Republican Indian”; thus, the book examines changing political and [End Page 313] imperial conditions from English colonization to the early republic. Truettner argues that “Noble Savage” paintings emphasized the sitter’s ability to navigate white and indigenous culture in a colonial context where Native allies were key to English success against other European colonizers. “Republican Indian” paintings often highlighted the incompatibility of white and Indian cultures in the early United States, eventually marking Native peoples as a vanishing race. The author situates his analysis of a wide array of paintings within the political contexts of the time period, noting the inclusion of important items of material culture such as medallions and peace medals in the creation of a genre of paintings he refers to as “portrait diplomacy” (5).
In Noble Savage paintings, Truettner identifies the importance of cross-dressing where the Indian sitter wears clothes and accessories from both indigenous and European cultures and how this cross-dressing enables a fluid political affiliation for patron and sitter. Additionally, the Noble Savage painting campaign often borrows from aristocratic and classical artistic conventions and incorporates iconography that emphasizes the elite status of the Indian sitter who was treated as a diplomat or delegate of his tribe. Truettner argues that the portrait archetype of the Noble Savage, often produced during formal sittings in artists’ studios, was frequently employed in connection to the Mohawks and other tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, due in part to the political prestige these tribes held with British colonial officials. The Republican Indian campaign includes paintings of Plains tribes (such as the Osage, Mandan, Sioux, Blackfoot, and Crow) from the first four decades of the nineteenth century when artists increasingly journeyed west to paint Indians, thus lending a more ethnographic approach. Republican Indian portraiture emphasized the sitter’s tribal affiliation and even branched out to include scenes of typical Plains Indian life such as buffalo hunts.
One of the most significant contributions of the book is its linking of the British trans-Atlantic world to that of the early national period of the United States. Truettner notes how the shift from colonies to nation ushered in the need for a new perspective on Indians to accommodate the burgeoning imperialistic westward movement of white Americans. The book’s consideration of the vacillating representation of Indians as “savage” and “civil” complements the relatively recent discussion of the racialization of Natives in works from scholars across disciplines, such as historian Joyce Chaplin and literary scholar Gordon Sayre.
Despite the fascinating commentary and historical context provided, there are, however, two main drawbacks to the monograph. The first is the scant attention given to representations of Native women. Truettner offers a cursory glance at a handful of fascinating portrayals of Indian women from the Republican Indian campaign and notes that these images have more in common with the Indian Princess mode. A more developed discussion of how the Indian Princess mode connects to the seemingly male-dominated categories of Noble Savage and Republican Indians would have been instructive. Furthermore, the book does not fully articulate the origins of the Noble Savage or Republican [End Page 314] Indian campaigns; situating these formalized portraits within a more detailed discussion of the widely circulated engravings and water colors of North American Indians by white artists from the sixteenth century would have helped create a more comprehensive macronarrative.
Truettner discusses two key approaches to rendering Native subjects and has deftly arranged a dizzying number of reproduced portraits into a coherent narrative. Most of the included images are reproduced in full color...