Painting, Portrait of a Native American Man

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  • Artist: Unidentified
  • Great Britain, England, London possibly
  • c. 1790
  • Oil on canvas
  • 2005-84

The visual credibility of this portrait makes unanswered questions about it all the more frustrating. Scholars suspect the subject of being Iroquois or a member of one of several bands that occupied the southern Great Lakes region, but the widespread adoption of many aspects of the man's attire, accoutrements, and adornment make it impossible to be specific.

Widely used features include the matchcoat (the blanket wrapped over this sitter's near arm), the trade ("English" style) shirt, the silver armband, and the pipe or pipe tomahawk. Many Native men also wore scalplocks like this man's, plucking the hair over most of the head but allowing a patch on top to grow long. The color and application of the paint on the subject's chin, cheek, temple, and ear might seem good clues. Yet face (and body) painting was a very personal aspect of self-presentation, often unique to the individual and based on visions or dreams; as yet, no consistent regional or tribal usage has been documented.

Other features are unusual and thus hold promise for future research. One is the subject's earring. Most Natives dressed in their finest attire for the occasion of a portrait sitting, generally including any of a variety of fancy ear bobs, cones, wheels, and (through slit ears) wire wrappings. By contrast, this man wears what scholars describe as a rather unremarkable "generic" earring. Curiously, no surviving examples of this particular type have been found. A second, even more surprising feature is the small lock of hair growing in front of the man's ear. At the time the portrait was painted, most Native Americans plucked facial hair, sometimes even eyebrows, so any such growth (but especially one in the form of a "sideburn") is unusual. Also, scalplocks generally were worn by active warriors; its appearance on a man of this one's advanced age (estimated as late fifties or sixties) is unexpected. One conceivable explanation is that all these idiosyncrasies derive from simple personal preferences--illustrating how much today's students still have to learn about the variety and diversity of Native American appearance.

The portrait is unsigned. Often such paintings can be attributed to a particular artist on the basis of their style of execution. In this case though, scholars have come to no agreement regarding authorship. Possibilities explored to date include John Trumbull (1756-1843), Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), and Mather Brown (1761-1831). Distinctive markings on the back of the original canvas reveal that the fabric was supplied by a London "colourman" (artists' supplier). This adds weight to the possibility that the portrait was painted in England (and at one time or another, all of the above-named artists studied in London with American ex-patriot Benjamin West, 1738-1820). It should be noted, however, that similarly stamped canvases also were used in America, if to a lesser extent.

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