dimanche 13 mai 2012

The vision of Indians in the 19th century

American Indians have inspired hundreds of 19th century artists and thinkers. In the aftermath of the War of Independence, when Americans were striving to build their own identity away from the British colonisers' cultural domination, Indians were regarded as the tokens of a fantasised past. Writers and other artists therefore created ex nihilo the history of mythical ancestors in order to provide the new country with heroic figures.


Everybody has heard of James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans but several novels were written about American Indians at the same period by other less famous writers such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child.

Cooper's Uncas and Sedgwick's Magawisca correspond to the image of the Vanishing Indian and both The Last of the Mohicans and Hope Leslie re-create the myth of the heroic noble savage. 

Sedgwick's Hope Leslie deals with the arrival of the first settlers on the American soil, namely New England, in the 17th century. The novel focuses on the interactions between those frontiermen and the neighbouring Indians. Contrary to her contemporaries, Sedgwick is the only one staging a happy )marriage between an Indian man, Oneco, and the daughter of an Englishman, Faith Leslie. The girl is fully Indianised by the end of the novel, which is the only example at the time of a successful miscegenation. On the contrary, Oneco's sister, Magawisca, stands as the figure of the rebellious Indian who refuses any kind of amalgamation. This sentimental view ends on a form of sisterhood beyond the race barrier, even though the book features the eventual departure of the Indian tribe and the thriving of the English.

Here's a painting by Thomas Cole, who illustrated The Last of the Mohicans. Yet it could be used to depict a scene from Sedgwick's novel as well because the topics of both novels are similar.


George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American novelist, painter and traveller. Since he took part in the Lewis and Clark expedition, he visited many Indian tribes and endeavoured to paint them. 

The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowa, 1830-1870

This painting is the typical representation of an Indian chief. He wears typical clothing as imagined by the white artists. He stands as a proud warlord with his face paint and his necklace made of claws. 


This other painting focuses on "typical" Indian activities. It displays canoes and lodges in the distance and gives the image of the "good savage" drawing all his resources from the natural world - fishing being considered as an arch-natural activity.

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