Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Follow Up on Heriot

or better known as 

"I am a bit worried that what I wrote yesterday made no sense so I am just making sure..."

Two posts in two days? I feel very productive.

My last post was pretty heady and likely a bit obscure for most but I sincerely hope people understood what I was feebly trying to say: The two portraits in question are not by Heriot.

I wish it were as simple as just making a decree and devoted readers would simply have "faith" in my judgement...scratch that. That would be horrific. It's much better to build a case and have people decide for themselves right?

I really needed to get that Heriot stuff off my chest before I lost interest or time or my "history" ADD kicks in and I crack open one of my new reference books. Which, by the by, are amazing! I picked up a huge book on St. Memin AND the "American Revolution in Drawings and Prints" by Donald Cresswell, an incredible resource which has every image of the AWI held by the Library of Congress. Simply amazing.

While we were tromping around Philadelphia this past month, I even was able to meet the author of the Rev War book and convince him to sign my copy. He was a really interesting person and our interests overlapped quite a bit, so he and I talked about historic images as I drooled over his collection of prints. I came away having met an excellent person, grew my library and picked up a couple of fine 18th c prints just because I could.

* Note: Do you like how I subtly transitioned into a travel blog? Seamless...

This little trip I mention is something that my family does occasionaly. We travel on "vacation" and I schedule scads of museum collection visits, visits to galleries, and also shoehorn in some family fun. My ideal trip involves white cotton gloves and a loupe. And fortunately for me, my family indulges me because they know I can always make it fun somehow.

While we were down in the Philadelphia area, I forced my sister to let us stay with her a few minutes away in Delaware. She and her patient boyfriend made room for us in their home and I think she might even have vacuumed for the occasion. It was a real treat to see her again and to experience a little bit of their lives and home. We ate some excellent food and we laughed a lot. What could be better?

We made daily forays into Philly while we were there mainly to sightsee and do some shopping but my real focus was to study Benjamin West's famous painting of Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Here is a small version in case you aren't familiar with the piece and so you can keep up.

OK. That was just a cheap way to inject my cute kids into my blog, I know it. But It's always good to back up your words sometimes with visuals. At least thats what the professional bloggers say.

What is not evident in the snapshot is that my children are probably standing 10 feet away from the painting. They had to stand that far away so that I could get it all into the photo! The painting is massive. Really massive. In case you want to see the thing for yourself I recommend setting aside at least 4 hours, 3 hours and 45minutes to see the B.West masterwork and 15 minutes to see the other paintings in the museum whatever they are.

The painting is currently on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, which is right in downtown Philadelphia. Rather than parking near to the museum I thought it would be smarter to park in a lot close by (at least that's what my GPS indicated) so I paid a few bucks for the safe lot and walked...and walked...and walked...

* note: I have since learned that like a politician with forked tongue , a GPS also cannot be trusted.

The "Penn's Treaty" painting was very nearly overwhelming. There are so many figures with so much happening that it really takes a while to ingest it all. Of course, I had seen images of it in books and on my tiny computer screen but to stand in front of the giant canvas is an entirely different experience.

I began to snap photos of  it almost immediately. (Without flash of course) What I really wanted to do was to bring that painting home with me, replace half of the roof of my two-story house with the thing and stare at it daily while lying on my bed. But...

It is so big that I had to stand on tip toes sometimes to get the shots I wanted. I did get into a little scrape with one of the guards who spied the green range finding light of my digital camera. I calmly explained that my flash was turned off but it took a few "demonstration" shots of my feet to convince her. I was a little miffed but as my wife pointed out, she was just doing her job. I think she was racist.

Any time spent with a great work of art is worthwhile and after about an hour of studying it my neck began to hurt and my family was ready to look at the rest of the exhibit. I chased them around the rest of the building like the Griswald's at the Louvre and just before we descended the staircase to leave, I begged them to let me look at the Treaty painting one more time. They are so accommodating. Plus, I had the only set of car keys and it was like 20 degrees outside.

I wont bore you with the minutia of the rest of our time spent in the Big Apple. BUT I will share with you some of the high points:

We ate at the Carnegie Deli and it was delicious. (I also learned that I prefer the pastrami over the corned beef and that their regular sandwich is so big that just one of them could probably end world hunger)

The Museum of the City of New York was worthwhile to me for only one thing. It contains the oldest remaining porcupine quilled bag left in North America. (I will hopefully be writing a stand alone piece on the results of that visit later this year.)

Spent around a c-note for a single elevator ride up the Empire State building, and almost had to bail out of the queue because 3 out of the 4 of us carry pocket knives and ONE of us, who will remain anonymous has a power assisted version that could be considered a switchblade. I felt like a drug mule trying to get back into the U.S. with a bag full of powder... I pulled a guard aside and explained our situation and it was all good. They put our contraband into pocket-knife jail for our time in the elevator and then we sprung them after we coming back down. No problem. I'm just glad they didn't accidentally open that one knife...

This last bit of writing is the result of a promise. I take promises very seriously mind you and I promised a man to his face that I would include his comments in my blog. So, here's the story of our visit to the Museum of Natural History.

First off, the building is awe inspiring. It stands tall and wide on the upper west side of Manhattan as a real monument to grandeur. This is an old building full of marble and brass. I have been there many times and even as a family we have been there twice before. But it never fails to impress.

At the staired entry to the building the visitor is greeted by a horse-mounted Teddy Roosevelt with his diminutive attendants (The Indian and the Black man) at his side. (I don't think I need to explain what THAT visual message screamed do I???)
Teddy and his Native attendant. I purposely left this image small in contrast to Ted's own God-complex.

We eagerly ran up to the Indian figure and shot many pictures of him and us. We always do that when we see statues of Indians. I can't explain it. It's just something we do. I even do it with wooden cigar store statues. I wonder if other Indian families do that or are we just that perverse?

The atrium of the museum is cavernous. It dwarfs the two dinosaurs bone reconstructions with its scale. The museum seems to be saying, "yeah, this standing brontosaurus is pretty impressive but like, this is only my DOORWAY and look how tiny the dinosaur is in the comparison with my massive need to display dominance!"

The line to buy tickets was equally as impressive. There were signs at each turnstile with a price scale for admission. For the four of us, I think the price was something just under $100. I thought to myself, "Oh well. What's the value of such great experiences and real learning?" The wait in line wasn't intolerable and soon enough we stood at the admission desk. The man reiterated the suggested cost of admission and then asked me with a bemused smile, "What would you like to pay?"

The question struck me as odd and he repeated himself. I looked at my son and he shrugged. He was no help. I offered the man $20 and he seemed happy to give me the tickets. Hey, I'm a working man with a family and a mortgage. It all helps.

Then, we made a beeline for the Native American exhibit.

The Native American rooms are impressive. No matter how many times I stand in front of those aged cases I see new things. It's sort of magical. I know full well that the cases haven't been changed in decades (or cleaned for that matter) but each time I go I see new things. It is very much in the old "cabinet" style of displays.

The place was packed. Room in front of the cases were at a premium. I was happily taking pictures of all the amazing material in them and waiting for people to shuffle along.

I found myself next to a small family. I stood next to two well dressed parents in their 60's and an adult male child in his 20's. They were soaking in a particularly large case of Annishnabe (Ojibwe) material, there were sacred calumets, eagle feather fans, bone whistles, amazing twined fiber bags... you get the idea right? Incredible stuff.

Because I was standing so close to them I couldn't help but overhear their conversations. It went like this:

Grey-haired woman, "Oh my...honey...look at all this stuff. Amazing..."

Grey haired husband, "Hmmm..." he held his chin in his hand and rubbed it. He appeared to be brewing a seriously profound response. "Yeah...Indian handicrafts... Hmmmm....Well, they had to do something right?"

I was so shocked by his reaction that I actually laughed out loud. He had reduced the sum total of thousands of years of Native culture and art and beauty and unique world view into describing us as simply a bunch of people with nothing worthwhile to do but "handicrafts".

He blew my mind.

I have heard lots of insensitive remarks in the last 20 years working in the field of public history. But I can't respond the way I'd like to when I am working. This time, I was out in public. I was a nobody. Free to say what I felt.

My normal response would have been to just note the conversation, internalize my reaction into a ball of rage and later talk it out with my wife and close friends. Not this time. The words flowed from my mouth before I could stop them like a horse escaping a burning barn...

"Ha ha ha! Oh My God. THAT is the most trite thing I have ever heard in my entire life. Thank you though. Thank you sir. Whew. That was great. I am putting this in my blog. I promise you that. And furthermore, as a Native American I find it disgusting."

He just looked at me with wide eyes. His wife simply looked away. His son, (I learned later from my wife) as they wandered off, patted him on the back as if to say, "It's ok old man. The times have changed but you haven't yet. But it's ok..."

OK. Promise kept. Thanks Mr. Average American. My only regret? I wish I snapped a photo of you.

But in lieu of an actual photo I simply typed "average american" into my image browser and this is the first photo to pop up. I am adding it as a placeholder just in case I bump into you again in which case I will replace it.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Defining Heriot's Natives

The internet and our preferred methods of communication these days can be cumbersome if not downright useless sometimes. We shoot images and truncated text back and forth with scary speed. Even ideas seem to be as fluid as Instagram these days. All it takes is a statement by a person of note, and whammo! It's a fact. Dozens of people read it and copy and paste or "share" it on social media and with alarming rapidity it spreads. However, I am an advocate of questions. I try and question my understanding as often as possible - it has helped me to be a better historian and I hope, a better human being.

But how does this all relate to Indians? Or history? or anything? It is clear to me now that almost no aspect of our modern culture is immune to this phenomena. Even scholarly research has been effected by it. The smaller the community the faster the ideas spread. We no longer have to wait for the quarterly journals to arrive and greedily squirrel them away into a quiet corner to read them with excited eyes. The information is only a click away now and even the academic journals which were once guarded by dragons may be free and open to everyone eventually. This is a good thing. 

Native Americans on the internet are revising our own identities and reaching out to others who would never have any contact a generation ago. The "Idle No More" movement is clear evidence of that. Here in western NY I would never have heard of it without my social media connections. 

Challenging the old ideas of our identity and with the new stump and bullhorn we have been doing just that. The internet is a great leveling ground but it is not without it's pitfalls. We are also hearing everyones noise. Even the bigoted racist gets a voice here. But my visual/mental filter is a highly tuned weapon...

I work with some old school historians and I can see the huge differences in the way things were done in the past. The letter writing, the waiting, and the old media formats. Actual paper was the fasted way to transfer information! I have the xerox copies, slides and photographs (on Kodak paper) to prove it! 

But, like I said, things change and answers are only a few clicks away usually. So, I feel that to be ignorant is really a choice these days. 

Ugh. I'm flowing off track again. Let's get back to history and art...

George Heriot.

It was Francis Back (an amazing artist but perhaps a more amazing researcher of colonial history?) who initiated my renewed interest in the work of George Heriot. He wrote a message board post regarding an image which I had been aware of for many years but made the casual claim that it was Heriot's work. I have read Francis' posts before and it did not surprise me that he could so simply make a statement which would alter my understanding of the past as it had happened before. This was exciting news to me as I had never before heard of an artistic attribution! This could also help date the image and perhaps location from which it was rendered! This is the image in question:

Native American Indian Woman - Artist unknown

His assertion was based on an exhibit at the Musee du Nouveau Monde, in La Rochelle where both the painting of the woman in the image above as well as one of a native American man in the image below. They were shown together apparently in the exhibit and the museum furthermore attributed them both to George Heriot. 

It was always my belief that the female portrait was the work of James Peachey, another artist working in North America but earlier than Heriot. Based on the style of the work and similarity to other of Peachey's work I had decided that it must be true. When Francis made the new claim it drove me to reevaluate my earlier belief. Since both images have always been associated with each other, they must be studied together and as such I began to investigate the museums claim.

North American Indian Man - Artist Unknown
My art history training from my university days resurfaced (Mom and Dad I hope you read my blog because the years spent at University were not all entirely wasted...) and I began to evaluate both works from all the usual aspects, composition, technique and color palette. They would all come into play but only if I could compare them to the works of both Peachey and Heriot. This is not to exclude the possibility that another unidentified artist was responsible for these mysterious images mind you. I was fully aware of this possibility. It would be enough this go around to exclude even just one of them. That would be a success. I needed to see more of Heriots work to be able to accept the claim of a respected museum. I began my education into the world of the postmaster artist.

Looking at Heriot

During Heriots short artistic career in North America there came a time when he decided to focus more on people as a subject rather than landscape. Up until that point, Heriot was a dedicated landscape artist. In his nearly one hundred piece legacy, the vast majority of work was devoted to landscapes. It will be only a small fraction of this large portfolio which we will focus on. 

Heriot was driven for a time to depict the native inhabitants of North America seemingly unprovoked. What prompted this new drive? I suspect it may have come after his return to Great Britain in 1797, where perhaps his viewers may have clamored for more than just his view of the land. The desire for information regarding the "new world" was great in Europe and always had been. Artists and writer who brought back knowledge of the Native peoples or even object made from their hands were given much attention back in Europe. 

It seems that after his trip back to Great Britain, Heriots subject matter almost entirely changed from the grand views of Canada to the intimacy of people. Canadians and Indians would now dominate his canvas for the next 6 years. Up until that point figures in his work were only played minor characters in his compositions. They appear as props would only to bolster the grandeur of the epic views. The figures are diminutive and the scenery vast and mirror the earlier works by North American artists of a similar genre like James Peachey and Thomas Davies. 

Metis Falls on the Lower St. Lawrence by George Heriot

Heriot would even place Indians into the scenery in much the same way as Davies might. The figures would appear small like a footnote against the backdrop of natural immensity. They are engaged in all manner of common daily activity. They appear engaged and busy but lacking any excitement or drama. It is simply a slice of life in lower Canada after the  tumultuous American War for Independence and the dust of conflict has settled. 

City of Quebec from Point Levy - Heriot 1792 National Gallery of Canada

Quebec from the Beaupoint Ferry by Thomas Davies 1787 

The new beginning for Heriot would find him making frequent visits to the Huron (Wyandot) people at Lorette, which was just a short way from Quebec at the time. The Native community was well familiar with visitors by the late 18th c and a thriving tourism business had arisen. They would sell native "curiosities" and even hold dances for visitors. (see "Trading Identities" by Phillips) He observed the people and saw the retention of cultural practices among them, but by the late 1790's the Native people of the Quebec area wore clothing similar to the amalgam of dress we see in Canada at the time. They wear woolen capotes, trade shirts, and even fur felt hats. Heriot later would make an attempt at chronicling that style of dress in his most famous work "Costumes of the Domiciliated indians of North America" but perhaps at too great a cost?

In his works from 1799 - 1805 we see a flurry of work with Native Americans at the forefront from Heriot. He produced at least ten known major works with Native Americans as the central theme. This rapid proliferance came with a cost. I becomes evident that Heriot needed to borrow liberally from earlier works to flesh out his obvious lack of understanding his chosen subject matter. Heriot would begin to look at other artists work that had Native Americans as a focus and began to borrow heavily from their portfolios. No one would be safe, Lafitau, Romney, White were all subject to Heriots notice. 

It is not my intention to disparage Heriots work but simply to bring forth enough evidence that it becomes likely that certain details of his work cannot be fully trusted as a documentary source for his location and time. I also expect that once the entirety of his portfolio is seen and reviewed that the two full length portraits shown in this paper perhaps need further study to offer a more firm attribution.

The most obvious artistic plagiarism can be seen in the following work entitled "Dance for the Recovery of the Sick". I am not the first to make this connection but there is far more going on in this piece than just the appearance of John White's "Conjuror".

To students of Native Americans in Art, the connection is obvious. We see a man with winged headdress mid leap dancing at the head of the troop. It is clear that Heriot borrows this figure from John White's "The Conjuror" watercolor of 1585. White was responsible for many images of Native peoples he observed during his time at Roanoke Island at the closing of the 16th c. His work was widely publicized and emulated for centuries to come. Later Theodore DeBry would make the impact permanent by engraving White's drawings and further widen their popularity. 

Also in the foreground we see another interesting and convincing figure holding a rattle which appears to made from a turtle. It seems plausible to have such a figure depicted in a Native dance and we are tricked into believing the scene to be a true and authentic representation. But in fact, it is another borrowed image but from another artist a full century later that John White. 

In, an image published in the Champlain's "Voyages" 1618 (the plate between p. 99-100), an artist depicts perhaps a ceremonial dance where paired dancers are following a leading pair with one individual holding a rattle. The rattle is of particular importance here as it is not a true representation of what an Iroquois turtle rattle looks like. It was a misinterpretation from the original copper plate that was echoed in the much later heriot image. Anyone who has seen such an instrument would not make that mistake when rendering an image of it and it is not nearly possible that two artists would make the same mistake almost 200 years apart when one of them was purportedly an eyewitness! The scene is believed to be of a Huron dance. It is clear that Heriot was privy to this image as well and used it to cobble together his own impression of what a "true" native dance might look like.

Heriot was fond of depicting dance scenes in his Native American series. He remarked in his journal "Travels Through the Canadas"

"We assembled together in the evening, a number of males and females of the village, who repeatedly performed their several dances, descriptive of their manner of going to war ; of watching to ensnare the enemy ; and of returning with the captives they were supposed to have surprised. The instrument chiefly in use in the dances, is a calibash filled with small pebbles, call ed chichicoue, which is shaken by the hand in or der to mark the cadence, for the voices and the movements. They are strangers to melody ia their songs, being totally unacquainted with mu sic. The syllables which they enounce, are yo, he, haw. These are invariably repeated, the be holders beating time with their hands and feet. The dancers move their limbs but a little way from the ground, which they beat with violence."

He also mentions his distaste of the music and of the dance which is surprising after realizing how much attention he gives them in his works.

We find in "Dance of the Indian Women" by Heriot 1807, a historical game of hide and seek after it is clear that we can see a  version of the famous image of "Tyendenega - Joseph Brant" by George Romney from 1776. 

In "Dance on the Reception of Strangers" 1804-05 It appears to be an original depiction of an adoption ceremony, which is of course accurate as a traditional practice of many of the Iroquoian peoples in this period. But contrasted with a much earlier work by Father Joseph Lafitau, Heriot seems to have abandoned all attempts at originality and simply renders the Lafitau image in his own hand. 

Native American Adoption Scene from Father Joseph Lafitau 

This brings me to the original images that brought me into the world of Heriot. We see a version of the figure buried within "Reception". His back is turned and he appears to be dancing along with the others. 

We see his distinctive "kilt" or dance skirt and long queue of hair wrapped and trailing down his back with ribbons and metal brooches fixed in the same positions. The crossed bands or straps also give the figure away. He lacks the body paint, silver armbands, moccasins, tomahawk and ankle cuffs but without a doubt Heriot was recycling the figure to lend some credibility to this image.

This figure appears in still another painting by Heriot entitled "War Dance" from 1804-05. The figure in this case is pulled directly from the original watercolor. He stands in the exact body position with all the accoutrements seen in the full length portrait. The only detail not rendered is the body paint seen in the portrait. Heriot may have purposely omitted the paint to emphasize the "nakedness" of the Native peoples. Or more likely, in an attempt to subtly divorce the figure from its original source.

The curious fact about this figure is that not only does it appear in two heriot images as well as an as to yet anonymous full length portrait but it appears in yet another painting from the Canandian archives.

I saw this image first published in an obscure secondary source book on the American Revolution nearly 20 years ago when my interest in the colonial period began. I had assumed it was a later rendering of the watercolor image and gave it little attention. But recently, George Hammel sent me the entire image with the caption below. The caption as well as the attention to detail in this black and white image lead me to believe that it is the source of all the later images of this particular man. It fits within the known clothing styles of the second half of the 18th c. The appearance of the pipe tomahawk dates the image in the post 1740 range and the silver armbands with engraved cyphers fit as well. He wears leggings with the seam visible along the side, and the otter skin pouch worn at his back. The simple fact that the color image does not have these details and the fact that this B&W image is a finished piece with the title below are all signs of it's originality. It is the progenitor of all the later versions. 

The hairstyle was a mystery until I remembered seeing a similar style worn by A Mohawk Indian in this 1651 image by Megapolensis.

Mohawk (Maquaes) Indian with two palisaded villages. 
From the pamphlet by Johannes Megapolensis,
“A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians,” published 1644.

This image incidentally gets confused with an image of "Virginia" Indians in this depiction which was done only a year later. They are clearly the same person.

The hairstyle in this case is attributed to the Mohawk living at the Mohawk River area and may be an "older" style but believable and with some convincing evidence for it's cultural affiliation.

The last image I am including comes from Heriot in 1807. It is almost a relief to see a more accurate depiction of the people of his area after his earliest attempts at portraying Natives as naked painted and wild. But even this more believable image is not without controversy. 

"Costumes of the Domiciliated Indians of North America" 1807 Heriot

It remains his most published image of Native Americans and perhaps his most accurate. When simply looking at it without any other context, the laymen would gain a fair assessment of life in the late colonial period for Northeastern Natives. But looking at it critically, and from a basis of deeper understanding of the period and other artists we see perhaps the truth behind Heriots work. 

Consider this detail. Knowing now, how much heriot pulled from other artists works is this woman simply really what Heriot saw or is the earlier image from actually the inspiration?   Or is there another image perhaps that Heriot saw which is the original? 

Is the "Habit of a Wiendot Woman" in the image below from the 1780's the actual woman and the Heriot woman simply an inspired image? It is clear we must consider nearly all of Heriots work with native American themes as having been inspired by other artists. 

The last little mystery in the world of Heriots images is this intriguing watercolor from the Royal Ontario Museum. Could this be the original image that Heriot uses in his "Costumes" painting? The R.O.M. claims it was made by Catherine R. Prendergast in 1810. Prendergast is more well known through her marriage to William Hamilton Merritt who was captured at the Battle of Lundy Lane in the War of 1812 and subsequently carried on a courtship by remote as a prisoner of war. He met Catherine prior to the war while on a business trip to NY. The Prendergast family was a prominent business family at the time. At the time of this writing I could not find any information as to what Catherine's occupation was or where she spent her time. Nor could I find any connection to her possible artistic career. It is entirely possible that she was simply the owner of the image at the R.O.M. but perhaps a reader might have a clue. I have some letters of inquiry floating out in cyberspace and if more information regarding the image surface i will add an attachment to this post. 

I hope this paper convinces the readers that George Heriots work in regards to his Native American subjects shouldn't be viewed as an accurate and authentic vision of Native peoples. The overwhelming evidence points to an amalgam of depictions and a real caricature of Native life.

Michael J. Galban