BURBANK, Elbridge Ayer. Portraits of Native Americans. Chicago: Privately Printed, 1899.

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BURBANK, Elbridge Ayer (1858-1949). Portraits of Native Americans. Chicago: Privately Printed, 1899.


32 fine colortypes of portraits of Native Americans (7 portraits each 8 4/8 x 5 4/8 inches; and 25 each 11 x 8 inches), each SIGNED AND INSCRIBED on the verso by Burbank. Preserved in a modern pocket binder.

Provenance: with Swann Galleries, 16th of June, 2005, lot 271

A UNIQUE COLLECTION OF BURBANK'S PORTRAITS OF NATIVE AMERICANS, SIGNED AND INSCRIBED AT LENGTH BY HIM ON THE VERSOS, including Series A, 1-21, published privately in 1899 as "The Burbank Indian portraits; a collection of portraits of noted Indian chiefs and warriors".

Burbank was the nephew of Edward Ayer, historian of Native-American cultures and owner of one of the largest libraries on the subject. The bibliography of his collection became the first comprehensive treatment of the literature of Native Americans. As president of the Field Columbian Museum he commissioned his nephew to create portraits of the leading Native Americans of the time. Burbank became one of the most prominent painters of Native Americans and it is said he produced the only painted portrait of Geronimo taken from life. The paintings are ethnographically correct and are often the only surviving record of the sitter. Beginning in 1897, Burbank lived and painted among the tribes, eventually completing more than 1200 works documenting at least 125 of the nation's tribes in a variety of media.

The reproductions offered here are significant for the autograph notes added by Burbank on the versos of the prints. He humanizes his subjects and makes them real. In a lengthy description of Geronimo he notes that "he was most kind to animals and a kindly husband to his sick wife." He goes on to describe how Geronimo took on some his wife's duties, including keeping the house in order."With his first commission to paint Geronimo from life, Burbank travelled to to the reservation of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Once a feared warrior, Geronimo was no longer a threat but was becoming a symbol of the plight of the Indian, by then relocated and confined to reservations. When he met Geronimo and asked to paint his portrait, Geronimo replied "one dollar" and offered Burbank a photograph of himself. Burbank had to explain through an interpreter that he wished to paint the chief, not purchase a photograph of him, and after several compromises between artist and subject, Geronimo conceded; thus began a friendship that allowed Burbank to paint several portraits of Geronimo from life; he was the only artist ever allowed to do so" (Waechter "The Art of Elbridge Ayer Burbank from the Harold and Bonnie Julsen Collection" page 8).

In speaking of Chief Kicking-Bear of the Sioux tribe he says, "He wanted me to live with him the remainder of my life. When he was in Washington D. C. the Smithsonian took a plaster cast of his whole body on account of the perfect form of it." Together, an important archive containing insights on the American Indian by one the greatest portraitists of the time.

Burbank's portraits now reside in some of the most august institutions in America: 

Art Institute of Chicago
American Museum of Natural History
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library - Yale University
Butler Institute of American Art
C. M. Russell Museum
Harvard-Diggins Library
Hearst Art Gallery, St. Mary's College
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site - National Park Service
Luther Burbank Home & Gardens
Museum of the America West
Newberry Library
Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology - Harvard University
Phoenix Art Museum
Rockford Art Museum
Smithsonian American Art Museum