Review: Masterpieces of Native art at museum in New York City

The Maffet Ledger, circa 1874-1881, is part of the "The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky" exhibit. Image from Metropolitan Museum of Art

Art history professor Henry Adams takes a closer look at The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City that runs through May 10:
The present exhibition makes two primary contributions. First, it identifies a core group of objects – particularly early ones – that can be securely dated. Second, it spotlights creations that are the most visually stunning – those that can claim the title of “masterpiece.”

The art of the Plains is notoriously difficult to date, since much of what survives has simply been passed down, traded or purchased without written documentation. Over the last few decades, a number of dedicated scholars, both Anglo and Native American, have worked to identify the origins of the artwork.

The exhibit provides a remarkable summary and distillation of this new scholarship, which focuses in good part on objects now located in European collections.

On a few occasions we have quite precise records. For example, Prince Maximilien of Wied acquired a buffalo robe from a Native American woman at Fort Pierre, South Dakota, on June 1 1833. Here we know the time, the place, the tribe – even the name of the woman who made the robe. But often, the provenance is a bit more vague. In a French prince’s 18th century Versailles apartment, a raven-feather headdress adorned the mannequin of “an American savage.” Aside from 1783 court records that describe the headdress, we don’t know whether it was from the Great Lakes region or the plains, nor do we know how it was acquired.

Early misidentifications abound. For example, early museum records describe a turban headdress as one that belonged to the Seminole Chief Osceola, a native of Florida. In fact, it’s one that belonged to a Pawnee chief who was painted by American portraitist George Catlin at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1832.

Similarly, a famous and widely published buffalo robe – allegedly collected by Louis and Clark – was most likely acquired about twenty years later by Lieutenant George C. Hutter, a soldier who married Clark’s niece.

Get the Story:
Henry Adams: From the Great Plains, Native American masterpieces emerged (The Conversation 4/7)

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