E. A. Burbank Timeline image
Among the crayon drawings by E. A. Burbank is this rendition of an Apache chieftain.

E. A. Burbank Timeline image

Smudged renderings included in display

Jerry Kuyper

June 22, 2002
Northwest Herald, used with permission

HARVARD - Poverty has its rewards, if not for he who is stricken, then for his posterity.

That seems to be the case with Elbridge Ayer Burbank, who was born in this city in 1858 and died in San Francisco in 1949.

At the behest of his uncle, Edward Everette Ayer, the reclusive artist journeyed west to paint American Indians. Ayer was the first president of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and desirous of preserving a people disappearing quickly from the North American scene. Or so Ayer thought.

The nephew, trained in portraiture at the Art Institute in Chicago, and in the use of color and technique in Munich, Germany, sought out extant flesh-and-blood reminders of a wild, 19th-century West. And, from 1897 to 1910, he drew and painted them. And grew poor in the process, refusing to return to the profitable portrait painting of society matrons, preferring to draw natives of the West and Southwest.

Burbank's key patrons were not only his uncle, who also was a trustee of Chicago's Newberry Library, but others interested in ethnography, such as the Bureau of Indian Ethnography in Washington, D.C.

During this period, Burbank painted such famous Indians as Geronimo (Apache), Sitting Bull (Sioux) and Chief Joseph (Nez Perce). He also painted hundreds of lesser plains, desert and mountain warriors, such as Chief Black Coyote (Arapahoe), Chief Gray Hair (Crow), Chief Flat Iron (Sioux) and Chief Santos (Apache).

As the famous Indians died, such as those who fought the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry, George A. Custer and assorted other federal forces protecting the flow of immigration to the West after 1850, Burbank's patrons became fewer and fewer in number.

Patrons, then and now, wanted renditions of the famous and infamous still living to hang on their ways.

With the deaths of these famous Indians, Burbank could have returned to a studio in Chicago and done portraitures of wealthy fat cats and their wives for the rest of his life, but he spurned that alternative. He had traveled West, and the West had won. It had won his heart, and this meant the rest of his life would be walking the mountains, plateaus and deserts of his adopted tribes.

To do this, he had to make a living and, as private collectors were diminishing in numbers, he was forced to take a look at the way he was conducting the business of art. That is when he switched from, primarily, the medium of oils to that of red conte crayon drawings.

"Conte crayons and similar materials have been used as drawing media since the Renaissance," said Susan Russick, director of conservation services at the Newberry Library.

"They are one of the most commonly used drawing materials. In earlier times, they were produced by the artist but by Burbank's day, were probably professionally made and purchased by the artist. Many recipes exist. They are often predominantly pigment based (carbon, earth, metal oxides) with various binders, such as waxes and resins, included to form a stick of the desired hardness.

"Conte drawings tend to hold up very well. Like pencil, they are applied by abrasion so they can rub off (some have loose, friable dust), but they are often fairly stable media. They do not contain the oils which cause so many problems for the paper support in oil pastels, are not as friable as chalk pastels, provide more control and richer color than wax crayons, do not bleed or fade as fast as most water colors," Russick said.

"Paper is key in the condition of the drawing. Burbank used several types of paper and most of the ones I have seen in our (Newberry) collection are high quality and are in excellent condition. The turn of the 20th century was a bad time in the history of paper making, so this is really lucky.

"Many of the drawings have some dirty smudges or thumb prints, which some may consider disfiguring, but we are reluctant to remove them since Burbank did his drawings from life and the smudges could be the result of passing the finished drawing around. We have hundreds of his drawings, often paired with one front view and one profile of an individual," she said.

The Newberry collection of Burbank drawings is attributable to Ayer.

In 1911, Ayer (1841-1927) donated more than 17,000 ethnographic items to the Newberry. Since then, the library, via the Ayer endowment fund, has collected more than 130,000 volumes, more than 1 million manuscript pages, 2,000 maps, 500 atlases, 6,000 photographs and 3,500 drawings on early contacts between American Indians and Europeans.

Among the Newberrys collection are 24 oil portraits of American Indians, one oil portrait of Ayer and 1,200 conte drawings by Burbank.

A sampling of that Burbank collection, buttressed by materials from other Burbank sources, will be on exhibit at the

Newberry through July 13.

Included in the free exhibit are six original crayon drawings of Indians by Burbank.

During his lifetime, Burbank sold more than 4,000 of these conte drawings, either from the Hubbell Trading Post on the Navajo Indian Reservation (Arizona), or from his home in Los Angeles and later San Francisco. .

He was not reduced to penury or living the life of a Medieval mendicant, as he lived and sold his artwork, mostly in an era before New Deals, Fair Deals, New Societies and government programs here, there and everywhere to benefit anyone and everyone. If he earned a dollar, the tax bite was about 2 cents. Today, if he were alive, for each dollar he earned, the tax bite would be 50 cents.

Burbank was a stickler for working from life, and not in a studio. Although he had no known children, he did have a succession (perhaps as many as three) of wives to support.

He was in and out of several mental institutions.

Financial pressures got to him toward the end of his life, and he began making and selling copies of his originals.

He died after being struck by a San Francisco cable car in 1949.

At the time, he was living in the basement of the downtown Manx Hotel. His remains are buried in the Ayer block at Mount Auburn Cemetery.