In Whitman's Hand


About this Item

Title: The Indians in American Art

Creators: Walt Whitman, Anonymous

Annotation Date: After January 1, 1856

Base Document Citation: Anonymous, "The Indians in American Art," The Crayon: A Journal Devoted to the Graphic Arts, and the Literature Related to Them 3 (January 1856), 27–28.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00164

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the marginalia and annotations, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Lauren Grewe, Nicole Gray, and Matt Cohen


Whitman's Hand | Highlighting | Paste-on | Laid in | Erasure | Overwrite

[begin surface 1] -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
[Page image:]

Marriage of the Trapper The Trapper's Bride
by a Baltimore artist





IT seems to us that the Indian has not received justice in American art. The simple dignity of his ordinary carriage does not, perhaps, permit those picturesque accessories which are indulged in by mere picture-makers; but there are sublime passages in his history that deserve illustration at the hands of our historical painters. It should be held in dutiful remembrance that he is fast passing away from the face of the earth. Soon the last red man will have faded for ever from his native land, and those who come after us will trust to our scanty records for their knowledge of his habits and appearance. His mighty wrongs will be charged to our account, and the repulsive savage, elevated to the dignity of a martyr, will flaunt in a thousand graces not his own, while the native grandeur of his simple habits will be lost in a glare of picturesque romanticism. Already, he is oftener seen in our pictures, bedecked with European finery, than in the unadorned simplicity of his primitive condition. It suits better the purpose of our picture-makers to represent him in the more attractive aspect of his demi-civilized degradation than in the wild freedom of aboriginal manhood. Seen in his primitive garb, the wild, untamed denizen of an unknown country, he is a sublimely eloquent representative of the hidden recesses, and the mental solitude of the uncivilized wilderness. But tainted by the vices of his conquerors, clothed in the disjointed fragments of their habiliments, he is an object of disgust, too pitiable for comic portraiture, and too debased for serious art.

We all love to dwell upon the Indian's story. Posterity will regard him with intense interest. They will seek eagerly for every scrap of his tradition, history, and habits. We, who know by observation and are near his times, should endeavor to transmit the truth in regard to him. As it is, what with the romancer and the so-called historical painter, he stands a chance of figuring on the future canvas as a kind of savage harlequin, lost in a cloud of feathers and brilliant stuffs; or else in the other extreme, hung about with skulls, scalps, and the half-devoured fragments of the white man's carcass. All this is dramatic enough, but it is not the truest color of the historical Indian. Absorbed in his quiet dignity, brave, honest, eminently truthful, and always thoroughly in earnest, he stands grandly apart from all other known savage life. As such, let him be, for justice sake, sometimes represented.

We should rejoice to see the Indian figure more upon our canvas, and the costumed European less; for it cannot be hidden that it is the seductive blandishments of the white man's clothes that allures the artist into the portraiture of his history. We have had some remarkable pictures of the red man already painted, but few of them of sufficient pretension to be considered by posterity as authority. A few years since, Chapman's marriage of Pocahontas, in the Rotunda at Washington,— the most ambitious attempt we now remember. Penn's treaty will of course always be regarded with reverence. West knew the Indians when comparatively untainted by the white man's vices. Some years ago, a young man by the name of Deas, sent to New York some excellent pictures of Western Indian life. They had the stamp of being truthful portraits. He has, in a few instances, engaged the attention of the sculptor, but altogether we think, his claims have been sadly neglected.

Setting aside all the Indian history of the West, how much there is that is romantic, peculiar, and picturesque in his struggles with civilization in our own section of country. In Captain Church's history of Philip's war, there are innumerable incidents for the painter. Towards the close of the war, when Philip's followers were nearly all slain, and his ruin near, the captain suddenly came upon the solitary warrior, in an open clearing, seated on a stump, his face buried in his hands, brooding over the fallen fortunes of his country. Tho generous old captain, touched by the picture of the chief's distress, allowed him to seize his gun, and plunge, astonished, into the recesses of the forest. Could anything be more beautiful than this incident, justly treated, either by sculpture or painting? A naked man, a stump, a few chips, a gun, would tell the whole history of the war, and a heroic man's great struggles for his nation's liberty.

In the beginning of that war, the Indians were induced, by fair promises, to assemble peaceably in the log cabin church at Taunton. They were seated on one side of the house, and the English on the other, who, after lecturing them upon the white man's religion, suddenly rose and seized their arms. A brief struggle, a strife, rather of looks than hands, and the incident which settled the fortunes of New England was consummated. Is this not a subject for a great picture!

Picture the group of Aborigines, who, hiding in the forest, wonderingly watched the landing of the Pilgrims. What attitudes for the sculptor. One of them, perhaps, crawling along on his hands and knees in the snow, holding one hand over his eyes to hide the light, and the other by his side, clutching his bow, peering cautiously through a vista at the approaching strangers. Suppose an Indian hunter in this attitude, crawling along in sight of his prey, beckoning back with his hand behind him, his crouching dog, and holding with the other his gun. Here is an original action, unknown in antique sculpture—picturesque, composing agreeably, wholly American, full of lively incident, and telling its story perfectly.

The Indian, reposing at night by his campfire, or seen in the energy of his fiercest fight, skulking behind logs and trees, stealthily tracing his enemies' path in the leaves and bushes, grouped in council or roving in solitude—in all these positions, and in hundreds of others, is eminently picturesque and interesting. As an accessory in landscape, the Indian may be used with great effect. He is at home in every scene of primitive country. Picture them marching in "Indian file," winding silently along through the light and shade of some grand old primitive forest.

Has any poem yet really pourtrayed them? ———

Would not the Indian, and the full sentiment of their life, looks, fate, simplicity &c be a good theme for a full poem?—

[begin surface 2] -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
[Page image:]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.