Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983
William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant
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.
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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