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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Elbridge Ayer Burbank

The studio of E.A. Burbank among the Navajo in Ganado, Arizona.
Elbridge Ayer Burbank, 1890s
George Catlin died in 1872. Elbridge Ayer Burbank was born in 1858. Both painted Native Americans. Though not precisely one generation later, E.A. Burbank was very much heir to the tradition and style of the first and foremost in the field. Actually, there was a twenty-five year gap between their careers as Burbank learned his craft, first at the Chicago Academy of Design (now the Art Institute of Chicago). During the early 1880s, he also studied with various artists in Germany. Upon returning to Chicago, Burbank was approached by his uncle, Edward Burbank, who was president of that city's Field Museum of Natural History, with regard to painting a portrait of the Apache Chief Geronimo. The younger Burbank accepted the challenge and headed west, eventually arriving at Pine Ridge in South Dakota where he befriended and painted Ogallala Lakota Chief Blue Horse (below, left). Through him, Burbank was able to meet Geronimo, becoming the only artist to ever paint the legendary warrior from life.

Chief Blue Horse, 1898,
E.A. Burbank
Burbank's Portrait of Geronimo (below, left) from 1898 is not his best work. Judging from the many photos of the Apache chief, it's not even a particularly good likeness. It depicts an aging leader (Geronimo would have been about 70 at the time), in whose sun-ravaged face Burbank manages to capture the struggle of a heroic life tormented by defeat, whose latter years were spent in captivity, humiliation, and regret. With his dying breath the chief is said to have uttered: "I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive." Geronimo was among the first, but certainly not the last Native American to patiently pose for Burbank. Over the course of the next thirty years, the Chicago artist was to paint some twelve-hundred members of more than 125 different tribes from the Dakotas to Arizona, and eventually to San Francisco, California, where he died in 1949, having been hit by a cable car.

Crow Chief Pretty Eagle,
E.A. Burbank

Chief Geronimo, 1898,
E.A. Burbank

Though E.A. Burbank is best known for his portraits, some of his best works are not those of the tribal leadership but of their wives and children. In general his tribal chiefs are painted in profile, their faces exhibiting great dignity while exuding little warmth or humanity. In contrast, his portraits of She Comes Out First (below, left) and Gi-au-me Kiowa (below, right) have a more natural, lifelike glow lacking in his male depictions.

She Comes In First, Sioux, 1899,
E.A. Burbank
Gi-au-me Kiowa, 1909,
E.A. Burbank
Not all of Burbank's work was limited to portraits. As in so many cases when eastern artists encountered the West, Burbank was captivated by the land itself. And while not particularly known for his landscapes, there is a modern, even somewhat Impressionist quality to them as seen in his Hopi Indian Homes (below) from the early decades of the 20th century.

Hopi Indian Homes, E.A. Burbank
Likewise, Burbank also saw and depicted the constant cultural struggle of that era as Native Americans resisted the encroachment of eastern educational values in the form of well-meaning government agents and missionaries just as they had when they found themselves pushed westward and confined to the poverty and desperation of reservations. Burbank's Going to School, (bottom) painted in 1911, depicts a Native American family confronting an agent of Indian Affairs come to take away their son to the Carlyle Indian school in Pennsylvania. Judging by the lighting and perspective anomalies, the work appears to have been done from one or more photos utilizing flash (powder). It's unclear whether the mother may be weeping at the loss of her son or shielding her eyes from the flash.

Going to School, 1911, E.A. Burbank


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