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    

Commissioned portraits from this period and those from earlier dates suggest the way the sitter would want to be pictured, and stylistically, the figures of the Four Indian Kings relate to this mode in common with the limner. Although these portraits are typical of Anglo-Dutch realist portraits (9), their style has been modified by a familiarity with Baroque prototypes, such as that established at the British Court by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) after Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) .Characteristically, Anglo-Dutch portraits appear rather primitive. Facial features are clearly marked, and highlights accentuate the cheekbones and help to model shoulders, hands, and clothing. Strong value contrasts are employed, yet the figures remain rigid, sculptural, and emphatically linear.

This stiff and mannered representation is similar to that of the portraits by Dutch painters active along the Hudson River. An 'American look' emerged during the eighteenth century, apparent in the repetition of figural poses from one painting to the next. Mezzotints influenced North American as well as European artists. In the eighteenth century, the New World artists used English mezzotints as guides in their representations of local dignitaries who sat for them. Thus the sources used by European and American artists to depict Americans or Indians remained European. American artists could not as yet scrutinize their own landscape and persona, since most saw themselves as Europeans domiciled in America, which, of course, they were.

European contact with Indians steadily increased during the eighteenth century and the portraiture of Joseph Brant flourished at its height during the last quarter of the century. The interest in Brant as a subject of portraits, beginning in 1776, the year of the American Revolution, reflects the attachment artists of the day had in utilizing an Indian subject to depict and record the birth of the new country. The Indian represented the need for a new set of visual myths, in which American artists could elevate the glory of the new country. During this period, it may be said that the Indian portrait became a genre within English portraiture.

It was during the period of acculturation (from the beginning of the nineteenth century) that William Berczy drew portraits of Joseph Brant, inspired by the Neoclassical style. With the winning of American Independence, and the settling of Canada, political change became analogous to the democratic society of Greece and Rome and artists consciously imitated antique art in style and subject matter, drawing ancient morals for modern circumstances. Concurrently, the Indian in his 'natural' state was becoming virtually extinct, falling victim to the inevitable progress of resettlement and assimilation.

Biography of Joseph Brant

In order to understand the life of Joseph Brant (also known as Thayendanegea), (10) we must examine his background and his people.

The story of the Iroquois during and following the period of the American Revolution is largely reflected in the life story of Joseph Brant, born a Mohawk in the Iroquois League. French explorers in the sixteenth century found the League of Iroquois living in a loose confederacy of five tribes, inhabiting the central and western part of present-day New York State. The history and organization of the Iroquois in the League remain obscure until the closing years of the sixteenth century. The principal tribes were, located from east to west, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. The Tuscaroras, from the south, came north about 1720 and lived near the Oneidas. In addition, mixed settlements of these tribes, known as Mingos, plus others of the Algonkin tribe also settled along the Upper Susquehanna River and down into Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

Situated between the route to the west and between the French and English settlements, south of the St Lawrence River, the Iroquois were subjected to the pressures of imperialist expansion from both north and south. The wars between France and England had great effect upon the Iroquois, gradually turning the eastern tribes to the English, and the western group pro-French or neutral.

For many years the main source of contact between the Iroquois and the English had been that of trade, but from the beginning of the eighteenth century this contact intensified and was more varied in nature. The desire of the English to win over the Iroquois as allies and customers led to the establishing of treaties and the building of forts, as well as attempts to Anglicize them, which had a great effect upon Joseph Brant. By the middle of the century the Mohawks were nominally Anglican Christian, a process which had been initiated in 1704 by the "Incorporated Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts."

During Brant's early years, the Iroquois lived in three settlements in the Mohawk Valley. When united, they numbered roughly 2000, half of whom were Seneca, while about 160 were Mohawks.

New York was one of the most loyal colonies to the British Crown, and Albany, in the Mohawk Valley, was the centre of British trade interests. "It was in the Mohawk Valley that feudalism, the fur trade, and Indian diplomacy were most prominent." (11) The master planner of Indian matters, until his death in 1774, had been Sir William Johnson (1715-1774), the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, who had established himself in the Mohawk Valley. The fact that Sir William Johnson became the brother-in-law to Joseph Brant by his marriage to Brant's sister Molly (1735-1796) played a large role in Brant's subsequent Loyalist sympathies. After Sir William Johnson's death his mantle fell on his son, Sir John Johnson (1742-1830), and his nephew, Sir Guy Johnson (about 1730-1788) .With the outbreak of the American Revolution and the Johnsons' failure to dominate the Mohawk Valley, the Loyalists were forced to retreat to Canada at the beginning of 1776. At the close of the American Revolution, the United Empire Loyalist Six Nations Indians were a people without a land until the British Crown purchased what is now southern Ontario from the Mississauga Indians (Haldimand Grant, 1784) for the resettlement of the Loyalists, allotting reserves to the Six Nations Indians in the Bay of Quinte and the Grand River Valley. It was in this milieu, the battleground between the French, English, and American nations, the Indian and European cultures, and the resettlement of his people, that Joseph Brant's experiences were formed. (12)

Next Page | Joseph Brandt's early life

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