C. M. Russell Museum

Great Falls, MT




Portraits of Native America: Faces of the American West

September 20, 2001-February 8, 2002


The C.M. Russell Museum is pleased to present Portraits of Native America: Faces of the American West, a temporary exhibition that focuses on the enduring tradition of portrait-making, specifically, the faces of Native Americans by artists of the West. The exhibit features more than 35 paintings and sculptures depicting unique images of Native America designed to allow the viewer to come face-to-face with the people of the past in order to better understand who they were and who we are. All of the artworks in the exhibition are from the C.M. Russell Museum's permanent collection and will be exhibited in the Changing Exhibitions Gallery September 20, 2001 through February 8, 2002.

Portraits, whether painted, etched, or photographed, both fascinate and afford remarkable records. Looking into the face of another human, either as a portrait or in person, invites familiarity with that person's history, individuality, and character. For example, early portraits of the American Indian depicted their cultural richness, but usually in a highly romantic style. Some portraits were of real people, others of composites; some were taken from photographs, some from life; some were ethnographic images, and some were purely artistic. For whatever reasons these portraits were made, they record the splendor of what once were considered America's endangered peoples. This splendor is captured and depicted in the Portraits of Native America: Faces of the American West exhibition. (left: C.M. Russell, Untitled Indian portrait, watercolor, 11 x 8 inches, Gift of McKay Family in memory of Dave & Connie McKay and Marian McKay Qamar)

From the time of the earliest explorations of the Americas, there has been a continual fascination with the native peoples of the New World. This was especially true in the Colonial period and the era of the frontier West as can be seen through the many artistic portrayals of American Indians from these times. One of the most famous American Indian women, Pochahontas, the wife of Virginia colonist John Rolfe, had her portrait painted numerous times, the first as early as 1616. A highly romanticized portrait of Pochahontas painted almost three hundred years later by S.A. Kidder is featured in this exhibition.

By the time Charles Russell quit his cowboying job to become a full-time artist, many of his contemporaries were already portraying Indians. Among these was Joseph Henry Sharp, who was living on the Crow Agency in the late 1880s and was fascinated with the culture of the Northern Plains Indians. He had already established himself as a portrait painter in the early-mid 1880s in Cincinnati. In 1901, Sharp sold nearly one-hundred Indian portraits to the Smithsonian and to a collector, Phoebe Hearst. He continued throughout his career to paint exquisite portraits of both Plains Indians and the Indians of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Elbridge A. Burbank, was also a prolific painter of American Indian portraits. He captured them realistically showing their distinct features, which often included their obvious flaws. Other contemporaries featured in the exhibition, such as Olaf Seltzer, John Paxson, Maynard Dixon, and Joe Scheuerle, continued the tradition of painting portraits and other scenes of American Indian life.

C.M. Russell's portraits of Indians were often of real people, painted either from life or from photographs. His remarkable portrayals of unknown faces, done from imagination and memory, reveal a distinct Plains Indian face. The Russell portraits in the Portraits of Native America: Faces of the American West exhibition display realistic detail of clothing and decorations, often to the extent that their tribes can be identified; the character, mood, and strength of the individual also often become perceptible. (left: Elbridge Ayer Burbank, Quin-Cha-Ke-Cha, 1898, oil, 12 x 10 inches, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Franz Stenzel)

Portraits of Native America: Faces of the American West also features artists from more recent times such as Winold Reiss, who painted almost exclusively portraits of American Indians. Reiss painted primarily from life and many of his exquisite portraits appeared on calendars and advertisements for the Great Northern Railroad. Other contemporary painters like Harley Brown and until recently, Arlene Hooker Fay, continue the tradition of portraying the faces of American Indians. Kevin Red Star, a Crow Indian artist, depicts his own people in a dazzling and captivating manner, thus allowing an insight into his history, culture, and traditions.

The C.M. Russell Museum recently celebrated the grand opening of its expanded facility. The Museum now offers more exhibitions on Charlie Russell's life and work, new galleries filled with contemporary and historical Western and Native American art and artifacts, and is expanding its programs for children and families. The much-anticipated Russell's West Discovery Gallery will be opening this winter of 2001-2002. This family-oriented gallery will feature hands-on exhibits and an interactive computer station, designed to be used especially for family exploration.

Read more about the C. M. Russell Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.