Symbolic Realism in Native American Depiction [model abstract]

BenjWestNGAReinhard, Leslie. “British and Indian Identities in a Picture by Benjamin West,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31.3 (Spring 1998): 283-305.

Abstracted By Spencer Manners

Reinhardt challenges the notion that Benjamin West’s 18th century  portrait of Mohawk chief Karonghyontye, also referred to as Captain David Hill, and Guy Johnson is a representation of “eurocentric preconceptions,” (286). At first glance of the image, it seems as though West may have used European stereotyping because Hill is depicted as the typical “noble savage” in traditional warpaint and traditional Indian dress, while Johnson is portrayed in English clothing, (283).  Instead, Reinhardt suggests that the image reveals a symbolic documentation of a diplomatic alliance between the Mohawks and Great Britain. She strikes down the idea that West is trying to portray Hill as a “noble savage” by pointing out that West did adequate research  to “emblematically” depict Hillas a representative of the Mohawk nation, (298). Reinhardt researches the types of clothing that Native Americans were wearing at the time, and reveals that most Native Americans wore clothing that resembled European fashion, contrary to the traditional Mohawk fashion that Hill is wearing in West’s portrayal. Native Americans at the time wore loose cloth shirts in combination with Native American jewelry. However, in the portrait, Hill is topless with silver brooches and jewelry that resemble traditional Mohawk fashion. Reinhardt argues that this representation was meant to show the two worlds of the figures in the image coming together. The author accurately identifies the subjects in the image and then — using this knowledge — reinterprets the painting to push back on the idea that it depicts stereotypical European conceptions. The author further supports her claim by including Hill’s own statement indicating his satisfaction with the way he was depicted in the portrait, and asking Daniel Claus to have copy of the portrait sent to him. In the author’s conclusion, she asserts that West had painted the portrait with intentions of creating “authentic representations” of the two sitters by exaggerating the differences between them through West’s understanding of their lives and “political mission,” (298). Reinhardt’s reinterpretation of West’s painting indicates that there are other images of Native Americans  that have representative meanings, therefore further research must be done on these types of images. (350 Words)


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