Gertrude Käsebier's Indian Portraits

Themes: Drawings

Full Video Transcription

"This is American Bison." By Unknown Artist. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Something happened that early April morning in 1898—more than just the first studio portraits of some of the Sioux performers in Buffalo Bill's Wild West by Gertrude Käsebier. The Sioux performers, each waiting in turn to be photographed enjoyed their "hot frankfurters between unbuttered bread" and tea ("Sioux Chief's Party Calls" 1898), but they also filled their time by drawing pictures for Käsebier. After the initial visit, Käsebier's friendship with many of the performers continued, and for years she continued to receive drawings in her correspondences, and small gifts during visits with the Sioux. Most of the drawings are similar to other documented collections of Sioux pictographs. They depict blanketed figures, men and women, participating in courtship traditions; others are drawings of animals—buffalo, deer, horses. (Powers 1980, 41-47)

Two Unknown Men Drawing in Studio. By Gertrude Käsebier. Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The first drawings made by Iron Tail, Joe Black Fox, Samuel Lone Bear, Phillip Standing Soldier, and "Paul" are renderings of buffalo, horses, deer, tipis, and Indian figures draped in blankets, on horseback, and performing a war dance. Whether Käsebier requested any subjects for the drawings or how conversation directed the artist's drawing is not known. Several of the Indians were seated very near the sole window of the studio while drawing, yet none of the drawings reflect the New York metropolis outside or the Wild West show directly. One drawing given to Käsebier includes a description of the Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custer's last battle, written in Sioux. Animals, weapons, shields, tipis and figures line the border of this statement. (Mina Turner accession records, National Museum of American History) In other words, Käsebier's Sioux visitors drew pictures relevant to their lives social and cultural lives, not the lives they led traveling with Buffalo Bill.

Käsebier and others in the artistic community of New York saw value in these drawings, and the fourteen that were made in April 1898 received significant focus several years later in the popular journal Everybody's Magazine. The article, possibly written by Käsebier or a close friend, reproduced her photographs, drawings made for her by the Sioux Indians at her studio, and excerpts of letters exchanged. As a former non-photography artist herself, Käsebier would have had a unique appreciation for the art, and indeed, she kept the drawings for the remainder of her life.

Search the collection to view all the drawings made for Käsebier.