The Forty-niners by Oscar E. Berninghaus. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum
The Forty-niners, Oscar E. Berninghaus, before 1942, oil on canvas, Sid Richardson Museum. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum

The culture clash of Western expansion and the artists and exhibition that capture it are on view in Legacy at the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

C &I talked with Mary Burke, director of the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, about the exhibition Legacy and the complex and fascinating Western history the paintings reveal.  

Cowboys & Indians: Legacy portrays the clashes of various cultures before, during, and after “transition,” or “contact,” as some call the European encounter with the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Where did artists fit into these phases of contact/transition? How were they more than mere observers and documentarians?

Mary Burke: It may be worth considering the years in which the artists [in the Legacy exhibition] were born (from 1841 to 1885), and the years in which the works were executed (from 1880 to before 1942), as during this time span the viewpoints regarding, and circumstances of, indigenous Americans changed greatly. And, in the case of Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington, Legacy contains several works, from early through late stages of their careers, during which their viewpoints changed or matured.


C&I: Who among the artists represented were advocates for the indigenous cultures, and in what ways? 

Burke: Your question is wonderful and requires more space than your article allows, so I share instead a glimpse into the views of Charles M. Russell, as his works form the bulk of the Sid Richardson Museum’s collection.

Russell, who was once quoted as saying that the indigenous American was “the onley real American,” painted indigenous American subjects more than any other, and generally, with sympathy. He painted individuals of his own acquaintance and a few portraits of celebrated leaders whom he had never met. He often went on sketching trips to the Montana reservations and attended rodeos and stampedes where indigenous American delegations were present.

In 1888, while working as a cowboy, Russell visited Blackfeet, Piegan, and Blood (Kainai) Indian communities, often wearing wool trousers that had been patched or reinforced with light-colored buckskin. The shape, color, and positioning on Charlie’s backside reminded the Blood Indians of the antelope, so they gave him the name Ah-Wah-Cous (antelope).

Russell often received indigenous American visitors to his studio, and after his death in 1926, [his wife, Nancy] received a visit from a delegation of Blackfeet Indians, who presented her with money they had collected to help pay for a memorial honoring the artist. Keep in mind members of the delegation would have had very little real cash in that day.

In the late 19th century, many homeless Cree, Chippewa, and Metis lived in Great Falls, Montana, Charlie’s hometown. Montana residents often regarded them with disdain, many advocating for their forced removal. Russell felt otherwise: “It doesn’t look good for the people of Montana that they will sit and see a lot of [Indian] women and children starve to death in this kind of weather. … [The white residents] would be the first to yell if their grub pile was running short and they didn’t have enough coal to keep out the cold.” (Johnson, Peter. “Landless’ Indian Roots Date to 1890.” Great Falls Tribune, 10 August 1896, p. 1B.)

Russell developed a friendship with a Cree leader, Young Boy, who was a welcome visitor to Russell’s home and studio. Young Boy shared cultural details of the Cree life, was an occasional model when Charlie needed, and a recipient of gifts of Charlie’s artworks.

When Charlie died, after the funeral services, Young Boy went immediately to his late friend’s home, words failing him: “I can’t say things, for my heart is on the ground.” (Source: Britzman, Homer. Article [See page 8.]. TU2009.39.3899.1-16. Charles M. Russell Research Collection (Britzman). Late 19th century – early 20th century. Tulsa: Gilcrease Museum.)

He later wrote to Charlie’s widow, Nancy, expressing his condolences. “[H]e was a good man every place. I sure think of him and feel sorry for him just like my own relation.” (Source: Chapter 15, Epilogue. Taliaferro, John. Charles M. Russell: The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist. Little, Brown and Company. 1996.)

Also interesting and informative are excerpts from pages of a book written by his nephew, Austin Russell, describing Charlie’s opinion of indigenous Americans: (Source: C.M.R. Charles M. Russell, Cowboy Artist. A Biography. Twayne Publishers, New York, 1957. From the chapter titled “Charlie and the Indians.”)

Charlie had not changed his mind about the Indians. He knew their faults and how stubborn they are, but he also knew how badly we have treated them. Said he, ‘If you ever went out on a frozen river and sawed ice all day with the wind screaming over the edge of the bank, you’d know why that’s one job the white man is willing to give the Indian. He won’t give him any other. The white man kills off the buffalo, takes the Indians’ land, deprives him of his only means of livelihood, refuses to hire him as a ranch hand, and then tells you that all Indians are lazy a bunch of stinking gypsies! They have become exiles in their own country.’

The show was a cyclonic success, the take being four times as big as before; and when they had attended to the local poor, [Russell’s wife] Nancy still by virtue of sheer driving force the executive spent the surplus on blankets and food for the Crees, starving, freezing, and dying of pneumonia across the river. The church ladies objected but failed to make their objection stick and one, a very pious sister, said indignantly, ‘I wouldn’t have worked half so hard if I’d known we were going to waste the money on a lot of dirty old Indians!’ When Nancy repeated this at supper, Charlie went on the warpath, declaring he’d like to see her the pious lady in a tent out on the flat with not enough food to keep warm, but presently he calmed down and philosophized it, ‘I suppose she’s never in her life been really cold, or really hungry, and she hasn’t enough imagination to guess what a tent’s like in winter.’ He excused all sorts of things in other people on the ground that they just lacked imagination. They didn’t see everything in images as he or any other artist did.

The Pow-Wow by William Gilbert Gaul, ca. 1890. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum
The Pow-Wow, William Gilbert Gaul, ca. 1890, oil on canvas. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum

C&I: In our print article [C&I, November/December 2016], we featured the painting The Pow-Wow by William Gilbert Gaul. As painterly as his work is and as important as he was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, how is it that he is now relatively unknown when compared with, say, Russell and Remington?

Burke: Gaul enjoyed early success as an artist. He began his studies at the age of 17, enrolling in the National Academy of Design (NAD), whose emphasis was on realism and genre painting. In 1876, he left New York to travel throughout the West, returning to dedicate himself to paintings of military and Western scenes, for which he received acclaim. In 1882, Gaul was elected full academician standing — the youngest member at the time to achieve this status. That same year, he received a gold medal from the American Art Association for Holding the Line at All Hazards, a tribute to the Confederate soldier.

Gaul established himself as one of the country’s premier military artists. Exhibiting regularly at the academy, his paintings were commanding record prices, entering both private and public collections. His work was selected to illustrate novels and articles in magazines.

In 1881, Gaul inherited a small farm in Tennessee and he left New York to establish a residency on the farm. For nearly three decades to follow, Gaul lived in Tennessee for various periods of time, the land and its people providing inspiration.

But in the latter part of the 19th century, Gaul began to suffer financial setbacks. His health began to deteriorate. And, most significantly, his standing in the arts faltered as the public associated his name with military scenes, forgetting his success in depicting other subjects. Even as he continued to exhibit and win awards, American patrons of the arts were showing increasing interest in European painters.

In 1900, Gaul’s work at the NAD was overlooked. “A fellow member of the academy wrote later that upon meeting the tired and ill Gaul at the exhibition, Gaul said to him: ‘I guess you don’t remember me — I was Gilbert Gaul.’” (Source: Reeves, James F., Gilbert Gaul (Exhibition Guide: Tennessee Fine Arts Center, March 9 – April 13, 1975). Huntsville Museum of Art, May 1 – 30, 1975.)

Gaul is remembered primarily as a painter of military scenes — with great sympathy shown for the universal suffering endured by his subjects — but he was also a competent genre painter and landscapist.

In addition to considering competency, I suspect, though I don’t have figures at the ready to confirm, that the number of works painted by Gaul would not match the numbers of works executed by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, who produced an enormous amount of paintings, numbering in estimates in the 3,000s for each artist.

And, Remington enjoyed expanded exposure due to his illustrations in important magazines of the day, such as Harper’s Weekly, Collier’s, and Outing, to name a few. In addition to mastering painting, both Remington and Russell excelled in sculpture.

And, one might have further discussion of the impact of the social circles in which these artists traveled, as well as the strategic marketing of their artwork. Nancy Cooper Russell, Charlie’s wife and business manager, contributed greatly to his success.

C&I: What is particularly compelling to you about this painting by Gaul?

Burke: In terms of the painting’s execution, the work is, as you noted, very painterly. There is a vitality, and a freshness of color, in the application of paint. Efficient brushstrokes establish form — such as seen in the large teepee in the middle ground — or time of day, as in the loose, broad horizontal strokes of coral at the horizon line, which suggest early evening light.

In terms of the painting’s content, The Pow-Wow seems a straightforward genre scene. But Gaul has, without a great amount of detail, captured a way of life in transition. In its depiction of an everyday scene of everyday life for these indigenous American men and women, one sees within their campsite the juxtaposition of elements of both traditional and Western ways of life: a large teepee in the foreground with several smaller ones in the distance, horses grazing, two women in traditional clothing — and a wagon, a metal coffee pot, a kettle, and three men wearing articles of Western clothing.

In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners by Charles M. Russell. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum
In the Wake of the Buffalo Runners, Charles M. Russell, 1911, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Photography: Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum

C&I: Filching from the museum’s website here: “William G. Gaul was one of the five special agents who took the census of 1890 among the Indians, illustrating the ‘Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed.’ The report was an extensive undertaking by a special team of artists who recorded indigenous life in texts, sketches, photographs and paintings. Traveling extensively, Gaul gathered impressions firsthand and in 1890 offered an unvarnished picture of life on the Sioux reservation. He did not dress up his Indians or show them engaged in activities of an earlier day. Rather, he recorded exactly what he saw.” Was he actually engaged in the census, as in he was literally counting the Native American population?

Burke: Special agents counted or verified an enumerator’s figures, provided illustrative material (photographs, drawings, and/or paintings), and submitted written reports on the conditions of indigenous Americans; reports in some cases included recommendations for future policy.

C&I: What does “taxed” and “not taxed” mean here? 

Burke: It is helpful to consider several terms used by the U.S. government in the 1890 Census.

“Counted” and “Not-Counted”:

  • For the first time, in the year 1890, the U.S. government attempted to count all Indians.
  • Indians living on reservations were counted by special agents.
  • To prevent duplications in counting, all other Indians (those living off the reservations and part of the larger U.S. society who were self-supporting), were counted by enumerators conducting the general census.
  • And, Indians who had “voluntarily abandoned their tribal relations or have quit their reservations and now sustain themselves,” and who were “in no wise dependent upon the agency or government … in addition to their enumeration on the population and supplemental schedules” were to be “noted on a special schedule [7-917] by name, tribe, sex, age, occupation. … ”

“Taxed” and “Not-Taxed”:

  • Indians living on the reservations were not taxed.
  • Indians “roaming individually or in bands over settled tracts of country” were not taxed.
  • Indians living off the reservations who had assimilated into the larger U.S. society and who were self-supporting were taxed. “Indians not in tribal relations, whether full-bloods or half-breeds, who are found mingled with the white population, residing in white families, engaged as servants or laborers, or living in huts or wigwams on the outskirts of towns or settlements, are to be regarded as a part of the ordinary population of the country, and are to be embraced in the enumeration.”
  • Note: American Indians were not considered U.S. citizens until June 2, 1924.

“Civilized” and “Uncivilized”:

  • In the context of the census and the time being discussed, civilized refers to those Indians who had abandoned their traditional Indian way of life and who had assimilated into “civilized” life. Practices of “civilized” life included private ownership of property, “traditionally” Anglo-European-built homes, centralized governments, literacy, farming, engaging in commerce, education in schools, and Christian beliefs.
  • The term uncivilized refers to those Indians who still followed their traditional way of life.

It’s also instructive to note the following:

  • The term Five Civilized Tribes derives from the colonial and early federal period, and referred to five Indian nations: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole. These tribes were the first to be considered “civilized,” as they adopted the Anglo-European practices listed above. The term civilized in present-day discussion is considered derogatory, as it implies indigenous Indians were “uncivilized” before the influence of Anglo-European ways of life. A more neutral term, The Five Tribes, is used by some today to describe this group.
  • Indian is/was a term used by the U.S. government.

(Source for quote: “Special Enumeration for Indians,” Eleventh Census of the United States, pages 9-10.)

C&I: How long did Gaul travel in that capacity and how far did he range?

Burke: As a special agent for the census, Gaul traveled in July and August of 1890 to the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, and he traveled in August of 1890 to the Standing Rock Reservation, Fort Yates, North Dakota.

C&I: What kinds of conditions did he experience? Any close calls?

Burke: I am not aware of his documenting the conditions or close calls during his employment as a special agent, but Gaul had traveled extensively to reservations and Army posts in the West in the 1870s and 1880s, and he once related a tense moment that occurred 14 years prior. In an 1898 interview (Gilder, Jeannette L., “A Painter of Soldiers,” The Outlook, July 2, 1898, pp. 570–573), Gaul said that indigenous Americans were “a good deal like the white men — that some were very good fellows and some were very bad,” and that he had always been “treated with the greatest fairness by them.”

In the interview, Gaul described a tense moment he experienced in 1876, three weeks before the Battle of the Little Big Horn: “Once he and a cousin … were the only white men in a camp of Sioux Indians. Of course they were entirely at the mercy of the Indians, and they knew it; so did the Indians. Mr. Gaul was talking with the chief, Yellow Wolf I believe was his name, when the latter said to him, ‘Let me have your gun.’ Mr. Gaul thought for a moment. Then he decided it was a trial of faith, and that he would gain more by yielding gracefully than by making any show of resistance; so he drew his revolver, or ‘gun,’ as they used to say in the West, from its holster, and handed it to the chief. Yellow Wolf examined it carefully, and returned it to Mr. Gaul with a smile. ‘Let me see your gun,’ said the artist; and the Indian handed it over without hesitation. After that Mr. Gaul knew he was safe, but it was only three weeks later that the awful Sioux outbreak occurred.”

Legacy is on view at the Sid Richardson Museum through May 2017. For more information, visit the museum online