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The making of an American myth: Benjamin West, Penn's Treaty with the Indians

Benjamin West's painting "Penn's Treaty with the Indians" shows William Penn's peaceful negotiation with Native Americans. However, the painting, commissioned by Penn's son, Thomas, is likely a myth, created to uphold the Penn family's image during a time of fracturing leadership and questionable dealings with indigenous communities.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    This kind of pictorial myth-manufacture has not been uncommon in American history, no? The painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, the constitutional convention and the movie of the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, are examples.
    For "pre-photography" images, we need to view with skepticism. For photographic images, perhaps less so. Now that we are in the area of Artificial Intelligence, we might have to stop looking at all!
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Host] We're in the beautiful galleries of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, looking at a painting that many of us might be familiar with from American history textbooks. This is Benjamin West's "Penn's Treaty with the Indians." So we have William Penn. He's been granted this land by the King of England. He's seeking to create a Quaker community, and he's here shown negotiating peacefully with the Native Americans. - [Host] The left side is dominated by the Quaker settlers as well as a group of merchants, and then on the right side, you can see various groups of native peoples. - [Host] Now, Penn didn't have to trade for the land because he was deeded the land by the king. But it's his choice to come and do what he thinks is morally and ethically right, which is to compensate the Native Americans for their land. - [Host] The myth that this painting has perpetuated is that in 1682, William Penn and his followers meet with the Lenni Lenape and the Delaware peoples under a great elm tree at Shackamaxon, and in exchange for gifts, they trade for the land that will become Pennsylvania. - [Host] So this all looks marvelous. The colonists came to Pennsylvania, and because they were Quakers, they believed in the fundamental equality of all human souls, they believed in peace. And so here they are negotiating in this wonderful way that we very much want to believe was the way that colonization happened. But this painting effaces that reality. This was painted about a hundred years later, and it was commissioned by the son of William Penn, Thomas Penn, whose negotiations with the Native Americans was far from fair. - [Host] Thomas Penn commissions Benjamin West to paint this, ostensibly as a tribute to his father, William Penn. But he commissions it at a time when the Penn family legacy is at risk, not just because the second generation of Penns had less generous and less equitable relationships with the indigenous communities around the area, but because there was also fracturing within the Quaker leadership of Pennsylvania. - [Host] Thomas Penn, who inherited this, had almost royal authority over Pennsylvania colony. - [Host] And that's not a form of leadership that was popular on the eve of the Revolution. - [Host] But it's helpful if you can point to a painting that shows how kind and benevolent you and your ancestors have been. - [Host] It's particularly helpful if you can point to a painting that indicates that a market for the goods that you had to offer was inevitable. And it's critically important that the very center of the painting is occupied by a bright white bolt of cloth. West labored over these textiles, so not only does he show you the white bolt that's currently being traded in the center of the painting, but you see a Native American wearing it in green, wearing it in yellow, in red, and even in the bottom right corner, there is a Native mother wearing a very well ornamented piece of manufactured fabric. - [Host] We call this a history painting 'cause it's in this European tradition of large paintings that show a heroic or noble image from history. - [Host] And most scholars at this point agree that this moment never took place. This particular meeting under this particular elm tree with these particular leaders is probably a total myth. So we required a myth of this having been done right to allow ourselves to keep taking more and more in additional negotiations. So it's an important narrative for people in the colonies to believe that, at least here, we trade well with our neighbors, that we have business practices and religious practices and cultural practices that perpetuate peace. (gentle music)