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

Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983 

Annual Index
Author & Subject

William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant

by Gloria Lesser

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8    

The full-length figure depicted on a small scale reveals the maturity of Berczy's artistry, compared with his earlier work in Canada. The small size of the canvas is probably due to the prohibitive cost or the lack of availability of a larger one, as well as the limited opportunity to practice his artistry on a larger canvas. Berczy's training as a miniaturist is probably another reason for his use of the smaller format.

Set in a late autumn landscape, in this portrait Brant points to his peoples' land with an outstretched right arm, while holding a long-barrelled flintlock rifle in his left. He wears a sash and powder horn made of wood and horn over his shoulders. Before European contact, Indians made sashes from animal hair or natural fibres from plants such as nettle or basswood. Under Brant's sash is a skin pouch to hold shot for his gun. Pouches were used for many purposes. Made from tanned, smoked skin, of one-piece construction, they were often decorated with moose hair with quill appliqué sewn with sinew. Cut skin fringes were attached to the ends. Small, decorated containers, they were used for carrying medicine, tobacco, or other personal articles, because leggings had no pockets. Over a European-style white cloth shirt, a woolen blanket is draped in classical fashion similar to the way a toga was traditionally worn. Contact with Europeans had changed styles, and woolen and cotton goods replaced fur and leather. Some of the old furs ceased to be used as clothing, but found their way to the European market. A single silver armband encircles Brant's right arm. Armbands and leg bands were common ornaments. They were made of thin sheets of silver of different widths with holes drilled at the ends for ties, which made the pieces adjustable. Armbands were worn singly or in pairs at the middle of the upper arm.

The soft-soled Indian-made moccasins, adapted to travel in woodland and canoe, had a sole and sides made of a single piece of buckskin with a seam up the back, and were decorated with quillwork on the vamp and cuffs. On his blue ankle-length, Indian-made buckskin leggings, decorated with legging bands of beadwork, Brant wears splendid Indian garters decorated with motifs of either quill or beadwork. A George III embossed treaty medal is worn around his neck. For diplomatic or military reasons, medals were the most common gifts offered to friendly Indians. They were also the earliest form of trade silver. In reality, however, these medals were mere tokens, with no real parallel in the British military system. The painting also depicts Brant's dog, head turned towards his master and poised at his side. Behind Brant and dominated by him, stretches the Grand River, his homeland. Berczy uses a meticulous, linear approach in executing the outlines of the central figure and aspects of foliage, while the clouds and river are less defined. The folds of blanket and shirt, though voluminous, are controlled.

In stance, the Roman Emperor figure type, which was used for this heroicized portrait of Joseph Brant, can be seen in Berczy's Portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson of 1805 (Collection: Hudson's Bay Company, Winnipeg), which is an earlier prototype for the work. In his design, Berczy has chosen a familiar pose inherited from Roman portrait statues of political leaders, such as that of the so-called Pompey (end of  1st century A. D. or beginning of 2nd, Galleria Spada, Rome). Notable English painters of the eighteenth century have contributed to the meaning of the raised arm and pointing hand, and it was common among European artists to use a similar gesture at the outset of the nineteenth century. Within this tradition, Berczy describes his model with the cool objectivity characteristic of Neoclassicism.

Andre believes that Berczy planned to engrave this work in copper for a series on Canadian scenery and costume in the style of Freudeberger, or perhaps connected with Augustus Kendall's travels in Canada. (24) It is postulated by Martha Cooke (25) that Berczy modelled his full-length portrait of Brant on the John Simon mezzotint (after the oil painting by John Verelst} of Joseph Brant's grandfather, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow (fig. 6), one of the four Indian chiefs who visited England in 1710. According to Hugh Honour, (26) more than 200 copies of the Simon mezzotints (after Verelst} were distributed among the Indians in North America, and they provided a source of inspiration for various colonial artists. The convention of depicting the trade objects and attire is also reminiscent of this. Although prints made from the oil paintings of the Four Indian Kings by John Verelst influenced artists working in North America, and possibly Berczy, (27) this argument is not entirely convincing since the pose differs, as does the setting, in Berczy's work. The earlier Verelst work resembles a 'fashion plate' when compared to the selective and 'ceremonial' treatment of Brant by William Berczy.

In the foreground of Berczy's Brant, tree stumps with a growth of sprouts and mushrooms suggests colonization, decay and change. Tree stumps in fields were the inevitable consequence of the subjugation of the forest wilderness, a process concurrent with the first American settlements. Perhaps in this way the iconography implies a specifically American symbol, namely the clearing of land, blazing of new trails, and the establishment of settlements. Here, the iconography may refer to the resettlement of the Indian, and reflect the inevitable progress of colonization. Since the mezzotint technique emphasizes the crisp outlines of objects, the definition of the foliage seen in the mezzotints of the Verelst paintings may have been borrowed by Berczy and, as a result, the flora in his painting of Brant displays those crisp outlines.

The old rotting tree trunk, you know, symbolizes the brief life of all creatures, but now plants, flowers and mushrooms sprout from it. With great care, in Dürer's minute style, Berczy gives the trunk a most important air. (28)
Berczy was an artist preoccupied with the new Neoclassical type of painting, even though he had chosen the highly Romantic subject of the 'noble savage.' By emphasizing the equality of background to foreground, with the principal figure positioned as if in a frieze, Berczy has managed to give the Indian chief almost monumental importance. The painting's middle-ground and background contain topographical features intended to set the scene in proper sequence to the figure in the foreground.

The significance of Berczy's memorial Portrait of Joseph Brant lies in its testimonial value, documenting the extent to which the Indian had become acculturated. The painting is an allegory of those themes and concepts of acculturation vis-à-vis the Indian, and the symbolic attachment to land and land rights. The synthesis of pre- and post-contact costumes and trade goods revealed in the artistic motifs in the painting, substantiates the degree of transaction and adaptation. At the same time, Berczy's portrait is an icon simultaneously summarizing the regression and veneration of the Indian.

Next Page | Humanist Portraits

1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"