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Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Syacust Ukah

Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Ostenaco, a Cherokee leader, reveals British perceptions of Native Americans during the 18th century. The artwork reflects the era's politics and power dynamics, offering a unique perspective on history. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Narrator] We're in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking at a large, magnificent portrait of a Native American. - [Narrator] His name was Ostenaco, but he went by multiple names and titles. This is Syacust Ukah by Sir Joshua Reynolds. - [Narrator] Now Reynolds was the premier painter in England for portraits at this moment. - [Narrator] In 1762, Ostenaco is joined by two others, part of a peace delegation from the Cherokees. Reynolds is capturing a moment of great tension in British empire as the Seven Years War is coming to an end. - [Narrator] The Cherokee had been allies of the British, but that alliance had broken down, and war had broken out. The new treaty had been signed, but Ostenaco wanted assurances from the English king. - [Narrator] This was an alliance that was vital for the success of the British, and North America. They are still jockeying for power in North America with the French, and the Cherokee were particularly powerful. And the instability of that moment is captured here. - [Narrator] And this was a really fraught visit. The visit was of course, to be dignified. It was a visit to the king, but Ostenaco became the focus of celebrity, and of raucous reception. - [Narrator] There is a long history of indigenous voyages to England, but in the 1760s, this particular delegation attained a certain level of public spectacle. And as they were toured around England, they are attracting huge crowds, sometimes watching, sometimes disrupting their movements. - [Narrator] The sitter looks out at us with a three quarter view. His eyes are open, he looks confident, he looks powerful. His political importance is clear, but at least to my eyes, his eyes seem to be slightly quizzical. - [Narrator] We are not quite sure what he might be weighing. And I think this points to the experience that not only Reynolds would've had in painting this, but the trip in large because there was communication hampered as a result of the translator dying en route. - [Narrator] So this important political figure was having trouble communicating with the English, who didn't really understand him except in the most rudimentary way. And that raises such an interesting question. - [Narrator] Especially for Reynolds, where his portraiture style had to pull out virtues from the sitter, which meant that he had to know some specific details about the people who he's painting. And I think there are ways in this portrait that we see that he might be at a loss. - [Narrator] It is as if Reynolds has placed this man where one of the landed gentry would normally stand. And that's certainly true, I think if we look at the upper right corner where we see a little bit of vegetation, it's framing the figure. But maybe not so much when we look at the lower left, where we see a distant landscape that might be recalling the Americas. - [Narrator] And this would've been particular to Ostenaco's ancestral homelands. - [Narrator] Power is expressed in the painting, not only in his his erect posture, in his sense of self-possession, but also in the royal way in which he holds a pipe tomahawk in his right hand, almost as if it was the royal emblem of a scepter. - [Narrator] It also indicates the tension of this moment. This is a weapon of war. It is also an instrument of peace. - [Narrator] We see him wearing a brilliant red satin gold embroidered cloak, this cloth that wraps around his shoulders as if it could easily have been worn by an English monarch. - [Narrator] And this would've been typical of 18th century military portraiture. And so we see the importance of Ostenaco as a military figure, but I think the instability is clear in this robe that hangs precariously off of his left shoulder. Any sudden movement, it could easily fall off. - [Narrator] And then around his neck, he's wearing three emblems that speak of this trans-Atlantic moment. He's got first a sash that he's brought with him from the Americas. This is Wampum. - [Narrator] So Wampum would've meant a great deal to a number of indigenous nations prior to European contact. It was a way of solidifying alliance with tribes, emphasizing certain important ceremonial moments. And so this is indicating peace, and alliance, and friendship. - [Narrator] And that's further emphasized by the two European objects that he wears around his neck. We see a peace medal that probably represents a profile portrait of King George III, and then above that a military gorget. - [Narrator] So the peace medal would have been given to the most important member of an indigenous nation, and would represent the alliance with Britain. The gorget was a part of British military uniform, particularly for higher ranking officers, communicating his rank to the British Empire at this moment. - [Narrator] And it's such a beautiful example of Reynolds' brilliance as a painter, the way in which that design dissolves into flickers of light, and his brush flicks across that surface, picking up the quality of the metal. He does that as well in the gold brocade over the shoulder. - [Narrator] What really jumps off the canvas is these British imperial colors. He is literally robed in empire. (soft piano music)