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The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America


Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) was just 33 years old in 1901 when he began his legendary effort to document the North American Indian through photographs and interviews.  By 1930 he had studied more than 80 tribes and made more than 40,000 photographs. These seminal images came to define America's popular vision of Native American culture. (right: Edward S. Curtis, Chief Joseph - Nez Perce, 1903, Platinum Print, PH76.49)

The Terra Museum of American Art will host The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America through September 21, 2003.  This exhibition will display 65 rare and exquisite photographs, which were selected by Curtis himself for the exhibition called The North American Indian, that traveled throughout the United States during the first decade of the 20th century.  The magnificent 14 x 17 inch platinum prints, in "salon style" art nouveau mounts and signed by Curtis, testify to the artist's standing as a major American photographer.  They are drawn from the Peabody Essex collection, considered the finest compilation of Curtis prints anywhere.

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America will showcase fine examples of Curtis' best-known images: the vivid portraits of Indian leaders, warriors, women, and children. The exhibition includes a host of famous Curtis portraits, further distinguished by the exceptional quality of the prints. It will also include Curtis' "heroic re-creations" of outdoor encampments and dwellings; figure studies of Indians and their horses, many set against the moody, glowering Western skies; and environmental portraits such as an exquisitely structured rendering of Hopi women making piki bread.

"Curtis' photographs have exerted an enduring influence on mainstream American culture.  No other photographer has created a larger oeuvre on this theme, and it is Curtis, more than any other, who has molded our conception of Native Americans," stated Elizabeth Kennedy, Curator, Terra Museum of American Art.

Born in Wisconsin, Curtis opened his first photography studio in Seattle in 1891.  His reputation as an artist grew after his photograph of Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, was published around 1895.   Soon after he committed himself to the ambitious task of capturing the life and cultures of the Native American Indian, Curtis began his voyage.  From Puget Sound he traveled to Alaska, on the famed Harriman Expedition, to the homes of the Blackfoot Indians in Montana then on to Arizona and New Mexico to photograph the Hopi, Zunis, Acomas and Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley. He also photographed the Piegan, the Sioux, the Gros Ventre, the Cheyenne in the Rocky Mountains, and many other tribes.

Yet much debate has swirled around the authenticity of Curtis' photography.  Curtis was vilified by ethnologists for taking considerable liberties in portraying his subjects.  He had tribal leaders wear anachronistic headdresses and costumes.  He placed his subjects in highly idealized settings, often in dramatic pose.  His re-created rituals and customs were at times inaccurate.  He attempted the difficult feat of depicting a traditional Indian culture that was changing rapidly as a result of its contact with European Americans.

"Curtis must be judged as an artist, one following the pictorialist movement of the late nineteenth century, mixing artistry and romantic vision with documentary fact," stated Kennedy.  "Bold, sometimes abrasive, forever passionate, Curtis was the quintessential romantic visionary.  His photographs reflect both an extraordinary talent as a photographer and a revered dedication to the people whose majesty he wanted to preserve on film."

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America is developed by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.  The exhibition is accompanied by 190-page catalogue entitled Edward Curtis: The Master Prints by Clark Worwick.  After Chicago, the exhibition will continue its tour to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut in fall 2003.

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