National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983 

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William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant

by Gloria Lesser

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The Classical Hero

The great demand after the American Revolution for portraits of national heroes and statesmen created a body of official portraiture that is close to the intention of history painting. During the early American Republican period an acceleration of portraiture reflected this 'practical' art form. Ancient republican Rome, with its faithful citizenry and spartan virtues, appealed to the citizens of the struggling new republic in America, as well as to the growing Loyalist population in Upper Canada. Both architecture and the fine arts reflected this interest in the classical past. Greece and Rome were the symbols of rationality and justice, not simply tied to a past culture, but seen as deeply rooted in the nature of man, reminding him of his timeless qualities of dignity, honour, and essential humanity and democracy.

In William Berczy's commemorative composition, Portrait of Joseph Brant (National Gallery of Canada) (fig. 5), which is believed by Berczy's biographer, John Andre, (20) to have been executed shortly after the Chief's death at age sixty-five, the realities of the retrogression of the Indian's condition since the American Revolution could be studied in historical retrospect. The artist shows his subject full-length, striking a theatrical pose on the river bank. Neoclassical influence can be seen in the emphatic modelling, the severity of the line of the figure against the landscape, and the frozen, static position. Brant manifests, in demeanor and bearing, those attributes of faith, loyalty, and conquest in terms of the aspirations of the earliest explorers and voyageurs, glorifying the European-American contact, and symbolizing the beneficial side of this association. Berczy painted Joseph Brant as a spiritual leader in a new and optimistic age, almost as a Roman model from the past. This portrait, an historical, social, and political document, as well as a work of art, has evoked various reactions from art historians. Barry Lord describes his response to it in the following way:

This completely assimilated Mohawk chief...stands in full regalia in front of Berczy's idea of the Grand River, and points to the site for his people's new homeland. Berczy...has treated the Iroquois leader just as if he were a British aristocrat pointing out his ancestral domain, or a British general indicating the scene of his most famous battle. (21)

William Berczy was born in Wallerstein, Saxony, and he spent his youth in Vienna. He studied art in Italy from 1785-1790 and in England from 1790-1792. Originally (about 1785), Berczy was a miniature portrait painter, working in this specialty in both Switzerland and England before he arrived in America. He was also a writer, town planner, engineer, architect, and land developer as well as an artist. It was in his capacity as a land developer that Berczy met Joseph Brant in 1794, and the union between them and John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, consolidated their mutual political and financial prospects.

Berczy had brought a party of German colonists to New York State in 1792 as the Marquis of Bath's land agent. But he had quarrelled with authorities over the nature of the land assigned, so he moved his settlers to Markham Township, outside of York (now Toronto) in Upper Canada. By 1795, patrons in both Upper and Lower Canada were commissioning William Berczy to paint portraits and conversation pieces which were comparable to contemporary works in the Neoclassical style being done in England around 1800. Berczy spent some time in London in 1799, and by the time he returned to Canada in 1801, he was already imitating the contemporary Neoclassical style. By 1803 Berczy turned his attention to painting professionally.

William Berczy's relationship with the court painter to Queen Charlotte and George III, Johann Zoffany (1735-1810), an expatriate friend in London and an artist also of German origin, reveals possible stylistical influences, which may be seen in the full-length National Gallery of Canada portrait.

Theatrical touches in this later version are in the spirit of Zoffany's portraits of the comic actor, Isaac Bickerstaffe, owned by the Garrick Club of London.(22)
The most characteristic subjects painted by Zoffany in London were 'conversation pieces,' animated portrait groups with the owners' houses or grounds as background. Berczy's masterpiece, The Woolsey Family (National Gallery of Canada), begun shortly after his arrival in Canada and completed in 1809, was inspired by this favoured English convention.

In the Portrait of Joseph Brant, the expanse of background, depicting the land awarded the Six Nations Indians under Brant on the Grand River, personifies the sitter's status. However, status remained a European convention. There were no strata in Indian society, and any man might become a warrior chief, civil chief or sachem, provided that he belonged to one of the fifty maternal families in which that position was hereditary. Although Joseph Brant became a civil and military chief according to the custom of his society, by this time rank had undoubtedly become acknowledged by the Indian as well as the European.

Brant participated in the social whirl in the colony and his 'civilized' manners were observed by Mrs John Graves Simcoe, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor, who wrote after entertaining him at dinner:
He has a countenance expressive of art or cunning. He wore an English coat with handsome crimson blanket, lined with black, and trimmed with gold fringe, and wore a fur cap; round his neck he had a ring of plaited sweet hay. It is a kind of grass which  never loses its pleasant scent. The Indians are very fond of it. (23)
Perhaps the fact that Berczy chose to feature the landscape in his work is indicative of an interest in natural surroundings, or perhaps he was merely following a tradition common in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. However, his placement of Brant in rank equalling that of the land is ironic, since the Indian land reserves had diminished considerably by the time the portrait was painted. The impressive posture of Brant and the formality of his stance are reminiscent of Roman portraiture, and point to the classical models which Berczy followed.

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