"Many-Brushes" - Indian Painter

Without the least disparagement to the art of Brush, Farny, Remington, and others, and not forgetting the powerful sculptures of Proctor, Kemeys, Boyle, Dallin and MacNeil, it is entirely within bounds to say that no one has at all rivaled Burbank as an historical painter of Indians. He has taken up, barely in time - for all the Indian-ness of the First Americans is disappearing wonderfully fast - one of the least hackneyed, most picturesque and most important fields possible to American art. And he has proved, very emphatically, his entire competence to dominate it.

Incidentally, one reason why Mr. Burbank can paint Indians lies back of his fingers, and was not learned in the art schools. He can not only see but understand. They are to him not merely line and color, but human character. More ignorant people, who fancy that aborigines are not quite men and women, might be enlightened - if anything can enlighten them - by talk with this unassuming painter. His ethnologic horizon is not scientifically exhaustive; but he has got far enough to understand the fact of human nature-and this is much deeper in wisdom than many who pass for scientists, and write monographs of large words, ever made. One could make a very interesting story of Burbank's experiences and impressions in this career of painting Indians; a superficial acquaintance, in one way, but enabled by unspoiled eyes to arrive at the foundations of comprehension.

Born in Harvard, Illinois, Mr. Burbank began his art training in the old Academy of Design, Chicago, in 1874. He studied in Munich from 1886 to 1892. He is a nephew of Edward E. Ayer of Chicago, first president of the Field Columbian Museum, a trustee of the Newberry Library, and a collector and owner of the finest private library of Indian Americana in this country.

Admirably grounded in character portraiture by his long and highly successful studies of Negro types, he was turned westward by Mr. Ayer and began on Indians in Oklahoma, thence working northwest into the Sioux, Cheyenne and Nez Perce country. Later he traveled much among the Southwestern Apaches, Navajos and Pueblo stocks - particularly the Hopis, Zunis and Queres - and again among the Southern Cheyennes, the Arapahoes, Osages, Ogallala Sioux, and so on. He has painted most of the more famous chiefs - Geronimo, the last Apache genius, many times-and a great store of typical men, women and children.

Mr. Burbank has in general selected very characteristic types; and his portraits are done with rigorous exactness. He nothing extenuates, nor sets down aught in malice. He neither idealizes nor blinks. From our personal point of view, his pictures are harsh - not "retouched" as we demand our artists to flatter us, but uncompromising as a photograph made in strong sunlight. Popularly, this may give a mistaken impression; for many will forget that one chief reason why an Indian is so much more furrowed and ugly than we are is because he has no retoucher to make him pretty. But scientifically this insistence upon the lines in which life indexes character, is very important.

Mr. Burbank preserves not only the facial type with extraordinary fidelity and sympathy; his portraits are as well a graphic and accurate record of the characteristic costumes, tribal and ceremonial. This is an uncommon service, not only to the future but to the present. The vast majority of our painters and illustrators seem to have neither sense nor conscience about this matter. They are as apt to dress a Pueblo in a Pawnee warrior's dress, or a Kiowa in ancient Aztec costume, as anything else; and still more certain to confound the faces. It would not be quite so ridiculous to portray Quakers in cowboy garb, or Yankees with the physiognomy of Italians. But they do it, right along, and never seem to feel that they are either stupid or mendacious.

It is a peculiar merit of Mr. Burbank's art and conscience that he sees these vital differentiations and regards them. He is by odds the most successful thus far of all who have attempted Indian portraiture. His work has historic truth and value for which we seek in vain, from Catlin down to date, for a parallel. As Lungren is doing the best and truest work yet done on the southwestern arid landscapes and atmospheres, so Burbank is easily master of Indian faces.

CHARLES F. LUMMIS, in The Land of Sunshine

E. A. Burbank Timeline image