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Course: Art of the Americas to World War I > Unit 7

Lesson 5: Realism in the United States

John Wesley Jarvis, Black Hawk and His Son Whirling Thunder

John Wesley Jarvis paints Black Hawk and his son, Whirling Thunder, showcasing the complex relationship between Native Americans and U.S. settlers. The artwork captures the dignity of the subjects, while hinting at the tensions of the era. Created by Smarthistory.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    Another wonderful video - thanks! Question: on the topic of "sitting" for the artist. Do we know, for this particular painting, or for portraits in general from this or earlier time periods, that the subject "sat", literally, for the entire time the artist put brush to canvas? Given the detail and emotional depth of the finished portrait, I can only imagine that it would have taken many, many hours, spread over many weeks, if not longer. To me, this seems to have the potential to be an entire sub-category of art history, but if you could provide some insight into how this was accomplished for this painting, that would be great.
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(pleasant piano music) - [Narrator #1] We're in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking at this magnificent double portrait. - [Narrator #2] This is a portrait of Black Hawk and his son Whirling Thunder by John Wesley Jarvis. It's painted in 1833. This is an incredibly complex moment in American history and a complex moment in the lives of these two individuals. - [Narrator #1] Probably painted in New York where Jarvis was the leading portrait painter of his time. Black Hawk and his son were there only for a brief period of time, but importantly, they were not there of their own free will. - [Narrator #2] Black Hawk is standing to the right in front dressed in a fitted black military coat. He's got a white shirt and a black tie. In his ear, you can see some beaded adornments, and his expression is fairly serious. He's got a furrowed brow. His mouth is slightly downturned, and he appears to be a little bit introspective or perhaps even resigned. And then behind him, his son, Whirling Thunder, his mouth is upturned. His eyes are a little more open. He appears more inquisitive. He has the beaded adornments and some vermilion pigment on his ears and in his scalp block. He has one bare shoulder and then has a white cloak or cloth around his other shoulder with a red cloak overlaying that. - [Narrator #1] There's a strong light from the front, highlighting the facial features against a very dark background. - [Narrator #2] And really all the detail of the painting is concentrated on the two faces. Black Hawk was a leader of the Sauk people in present-day Illinois and he first was engaged in the war of 1812. He actually fought for the British against the Americans believing that the British were more likely to support the sovereignty of the South people. And then later in 1832, he led a band that was resisting a takeover of their homes, lands, and food supplies. When his forces were defeated, Black Hawk was touted as both a fallen hero, but also as a backward quote, savage. Black Hawk, his son, and several of his men were prisoners of war following this conflict. And at that time, president Andrew Jackson brought them on a tour of Eastern cities in the United States through the summer and fall of 1833. - [Narrator #1] Now, when we say tour we don't mean this was for the benefit of these two men. It was meant to do several things. It was meant to tout the US military's success that these were now prisoners. But at the same time, it was meant to impress upon these men the power of White America. - [Narrator #2] Jackson was hoping that by bringing these incarcerated individuals to several cities in the eastern United States that they would be impressed by the power and numbers of the United States and thus deter future conflict. But the public became so infatuated with Black Hawk and with this group of individuals touring that they really became celebrities and Jackson really wasn't able to control the narrative. - [Narrator #1] The fact that Jarvis, the most prominent portraitist in New York City, chose to paint their faces as a perfect testament to their celebrity and their historical importance at this moment. - [Narrator #2] As they traveled around the east, several artists painted their portraits. - [Narrator #1] Generally, when we think about portraiture, we think about people sitting of their own volition. And we don't know that's the case here. - [Narrator #2] There's a lot we probably can't know about the exact circumstances of how this portrait came to be painted. But what we do know is that Black Hawk and his son were in New York on this force tour, but they were able to still have some of their own agency in the way that they chose to represent themselves. - [Narrator #1] We're confronted with some really interesting compositional choices. The elder figure is on the right and the younger on the left, and the elder figure wears at least some Euro-American fashion where the younger figure does not. We do know that Black Hawk wore this jacket on numerous occasions, and it does speak to a White audience of military dignity and somebody to be reckoned with. - [ Narrator #2] Black Hawk did own this jacket. He's shown in this jacket in numerous engravings and portraits, and he continued to wear a tailored jacket at diplomatic and ceremonial occasions for the rest of his life. So for a White audience in the 19th century, this painting was likely viewed as a loss of culture. As the Sauk culture becoming assimilated into European American culture. It's likely that Black Hawk and his son saw this as their deliberate choice to adapt and bring these symbols of power into their culture. - [Narrator #1] And so it's important that we're viewing this painting here in Oklahoma. - [Narrator #2] Thomas Gilcrease, the founder of Gilcrease Museum, was himself a citizen of the Muscogee Nation and a big part of his motivation was to create a center of indigenous history in Oklahoma where there are 39 federally recognized tribes. And so today, the Sac and Fox Nation is located here in Oklahoma, not too far away from where one can come and see this portrait of the historic Sauk leader Black Hawk. (pleasant piano music)