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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Humanist Portraits

The National Gallery of Canada's Portrait of Joseph Brant is likely the end product of compositional elements from various sources, including a tree-trunk sketch in the collection of John Andre, and portrait studies of Joseph Brant, c. 1794-1797, now in various museums, and one in a private collection. By 1780, Berczy had started to mature as a painter, and had done sophisticated works in Europe. In the New World, Berczy had neither the paint, materials, nor the time to execute the detailed work he took pride in. Since he was a meticulous painter, who thought in terms of full compositions, Berczy probably considered his watercolour sketches, and an oil sketch bust portrait of Joseph Brant (figs 7, 8, and 9) as studies. Berczy's financial worries during this period may also have made it difficult to paint a masterful work. (29) Yet, these humanist portraits of Joseph Brant signify the artist's attempt to exalt Brant's personal eminence over any distinction given to him by status, and should be viewed as important works in their own right.

The watercolour miniature tondo bust portrait in the Château du Ramezay collection in Montreal (fig. 7) , similar to the miniature watercolour in the collection of the Quebec Seroinary (fig. 8), has recently been attributed to William Berczy as another version,(30) and these probably were the earliest sketches, both dating from c. 1794-1797. In the Quebec Seroinary version, Brant wears a silver medal around his neck, a feather with a ribbon attached to his scalplock, while in the Château du Ramezay tondo there is no evidence of any silver.

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) has a bust oil portrait tondo of Brant (fig. 9), in which he is posed in a three-quarter turn to the right.(31) This is believed to be the preliminary sketch for the painting in the Pitfield collection (32) (fig. 10). A ribbon is attached to Brant's scalplock, and he wears a British military coat, a sash over his shoulder, and a silver earring in his right ear. All attention is concentrated on his face and his frowning expression.

In the half-length oil tondos in the Pitfield and ROM collections, Brant wears the same attire and silver earrings, but in the Pitfield rendition the George III medal is included. In both the Pitfield and ROM examples, Brant holds a tomahawk, which appears anachronistic without his traditional costume. The Pitfield work was likely the latest replica, done as a preparatory work for a series of engravings that were probably never executed. (33) In the latter Berczy prominently displays a feather on Brant's scalplock; this has been omitted in the ROM version. Berczy lavished meticulous attention on the sculptural effect of the face, creating the impressive power of a Neoclassical bas-relief, and precisely determining basic character traits from Brant's features. Berczy could possibly have been influenced by prints.

For the tondo renditions of Joseph Brant, Berczy used the circular picture format, a shape popularly revived by the end of the eighteenth century. The tondos of Brant follow a Renaissance-humanist arrangement typical of works produced in Northern Europe, where the portrait developed as a pure form, in which artist and patron were as much interested in the revelations divulged in the human face as they were in the observation of objects in general. In the humanist portraits by Holbein or Dürer produced at the threshold of the Reformation, one can see an individualism in artistic and intellectual matters, and a new kind of introspection. The later Neoclassical code was a differentiation between a natural set ting in portraiture, and a 'natural' portrait, emphasizing a sculptural effect in the portrait, with a return to the technique of Van Eyck in the use of black grounds. In the sketches of Brant by Berczy, the features have been crisply delineated, and the subject has a commanding presence; his aura and power emanate more from his inner being than from his office. The artist, by focusing on Brant's personality, has ennobled it. The tondos of Brant fall into this humanistic arrangement, and are close to a real objective likeness of the man. The wearing of civilian dress implies Berczy's familiarity with his sitter, and contributes to the feeling of Brant's assimilation, despite the feather and tomahawk, vestigal remnants of Brant's original culture. In these studies, attention is paid to the specific physiognomy, and details of mouth, bone structure, and flesh are emphasized.

These humanist portraits of Brant by Berczy, both water-colour miniatures and oils, influenced by the Neoclassical style, were successfully realized largely because of Berczy's sophistication as a painter and his awareness of current European styles. In the ROM version and in the Pitfield painting, Berczy engineers the heroicizing impressions with formal devices. The projection of the sitter's right arm holding a tomahawk is an angular form bisecting the figure, and emphasizing the lines in the painting. These lines, dynamic, yet controlled, become analogous to those qualities perceived in Brant, producing a commanding, dominant image.

In conclusion, an investigation of the portraits of Joseph Brant by William Berczy can be shown to reveal larger developments in the art and style of the period. Brant is represented as a symbol of those exponents of logic and virtue formerly attached to the classical past of Greece and Rome, one that is perhaps synonymous with the growth of a new nation. Brant, in this guise, parallels contemporary styles in art, and was portrayed in civilian clothing in the humanist portraits, rather than native dress. His is a sober, elegant, and timeless image, one which points to his assimilation in manner, and adopted lifestyle. This timeless portrait form was an important metaphor for statesmanship. When Berczy painted Joseph Brant in ceremonial dress, he participated in, and helped to propagate, the conceptions Europeans held of Indians, and thus perpetuated a mythology.

As for the subject of Berczy's work, Joseph Brant the historical figure, despite the conflicting views of Brant as a trait or or arbitrator, the fact remains that the town of Brantford, Ontario, bears his name and acknowledges him as its founder.

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