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

Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983 

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click cover figure here for an enlarged image

Click figure 1 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 2 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 4 here for an enlarged image

William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant

by Gloria Lesser*

Article en français

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

*This article has been adapted from a Master's Thesis, which was originally prepared and presented to the Department of Art History at Concordia University, Montreal, in March 1983. I would like to thank François-Marc Gagnon, Conrad Graham, Sandra Paikowsky, and Laurier Lacroix, who helped me in my initial research.

Joseph Brant (1742-1807) was renowned as a celebrated Mohawk chief, Loyalist Indian statesman, and warrior. His portrait was painted on numerous occasions, especially during the period 1776-1807. These portraits, which include paintings, miniatures, drawings, and engravings, were done by leading portraitists in England, such as George Romney, the United States, such as Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and Ezra Ames, and by a German artist who emigrated to the British colony of Upper Canada, William Berczy. (1) Joseph Brant's image has continued to be accessible, circulated through prints or copies, until today. This article will concentrate on the portraits of Joseph Brant by William Berczy (1749-1813).

The portraits of Joseph Brant have a precedent in the renderings of Indians that were produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an era which I have classified as the 'pre-contact' period, when the first Europeans visited the New World. Visitors to America were navigators, soldiers, cartographers, explorers, draughtsmen and clerics who were adventurers, not artists. They made maps, mainly outlines of coasts, or the site or plan of a fort. Depictions of Indians were sometimes included in their maps when they attempted to delineate Indian territory. They recorded the Indians in terms of their own European prejudices based on the contemporary notions current in philosophy and religion.

By the eighteenth century, artists attempting to grasp concepts of Indian culture generally viewed Indians as curious and exotic figures within an extraordinary society. During the second half of the eighteenth century, European artists, according to the prevailing theories of the Enlightenment with its doctrine of Reason and Nature, began to look for the formal principles underlying art. Although John Dryden used the term "noble savage" as early as 1670 in The Conquest of Granada, the concept has come to be associated primarily with France, where it was popularized by Rousseau's writings. The eighteenth-century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the natural man unspoiled by civilization was a romantic notion which soon extended to the American Indian being regarded as the "noble savage." (2)

To European artists of the eighteenth century, these ideas sometimes manifested themselves as a decorative mannerism in the style known as Rococo, a style applied to the figure painting of Europeans as well as Indians. One manifestation of this mental imagery was the "imaginary" Indian who became prevalent as a symbol of the continents of the Americas, and who metaphorically represented the exotic parts of the world.

Imaginary Indians of this genre were treated in a naturalistic style portrayed full-length in an undefined pastoral landscape, adopting a casual, but artificially conventional pose as in aristocratic portraiture. This kind of Indian usually enriched decorative objects such as a Boule clock, Sèvres or Meissen porcelain, Gobelins tapestry, toile de Jouy chinoiserie, wallpaper murals, or woodblocked cottons. (3)

Even though the dominant art form practiced in the thirteen colonies before the American Revolution was portraiture, only a few portraits of individual Indians were produced between 1675-1775. "To painters dependent for their livelihood upon commissioned portraits, the Indian, like all the lower classes, was beyond the range of patronage." (4) The few paintings of individual Indians done during the eighteenth century usually represent a small group of chieftains who took part in historic events, such as the Four Indian Kings discussed below. Interest in the chief of a tribe denotes the hierarchical European classification of peoples in terms of class and rank followed at the time. Dealing with the Indian reality by imposing a social classification is a bias which does not fit with Indian culture, especially since authority is not designated in Indian culture as a permanent function. (5)

In 1710, four Indian chiefs, Etow Oh Koam (fig. 1) , Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow (Joseph Brant's grandfather) (fig. 2), Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Ro (fig. 3), and Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Ro (fig. 4), were taken to London to publicize the need for a stronger defence of the thirteen colonies against the French. During their celebrated visit they were received by Queen Anne, who commissioned John Verelst (1648?-1734) to execute their portraits. The formal detail, attitude, pose and costume - conventions seen in Verelst's portraits of the Four Indian Kings (1710, Public Archives of Canada, Picture Division) - had appeared as early as 1564 in the watercolours of decorative Indians made by France's Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (d. 1588) (6), and also in the engravings of Brazilian Indian chiefs made in 1584 by the Franciscan traveller and French court historiographer-cartographer, André Thévet (1502-1590), who had stayed a few months in Brazil and who published traveller's reports on his return. (7)

The archetypal 'noble savage / natural man' pre-contact definition of Indians gradually extended to and incorporated artifacts of contact, such as the European clothing and weapons which were adopted increasingly by Indians from the beginning of the eighteenth century. The combination of Indian and English artifacts indicates current Indian acculturation and serves as a testimonial of European contact in portraits such as the Four Indian Kings. The elements of destruction which would eventually lead to the demise of Indian culture can be documented. The shotflask and carrying sash, as well as the flintlock rifle of the British military, c. 1710, are proudly borne, contemporary in style, and acquired through trade. In these portraits, the trade objects shown are the weapons and plain scarlet cloak which Queen Anne had presented each Indian chief for the sitting. Presentation silver was actively traded only between about 1760-1821. (8)

Next Pagecommissioned portraits

  |  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"