It is often said that history is written by the victors. Canonized U.S. history is full of accounts honoring the conquerors while the voices of the conquered remain silent. But how has artistic interpretation and even propaganda influenced such events and, perhaps, altered history in the making?
“There are some very famous early works that were used as propaganda to shape public opinion of Native Americans,” said David Lubin, the Charlotte C. Weber professor of art at Wake Forest University. “You’ll see some that demonize the Native Americans, turn them into monsters, and others that show Indians as Greek statues, heavily muscled and lean.”
Early American painters often used their creative licenses to make political or social statements—influencing public opinion, helping to justify concepts like Manifest Destiny, or even calling to task governmental powers for their treatment of Natives.
Here are six works of fine art that helped shape America’s view of Natives:
The Death of Wolfe (1770) by Benjamin West. Born in what would become the state of Pennsylvania, West was the first American artist to rise to international fame. A self-taught artist, West created paintings that were a mix of history, religion and mythology.
In his most famous work, The Death of Wolfe, West captured the moment when Major-General James Wolfe was mortally wounded near Quebec during the Seven Years’ War. Included in the painting is a tattooed Native American shown in a contemplative pose—or “the Native American as stoic philosopher,” Lubin said.
The Death of Jane McCrea (1804) by John Vanderlyn. A protégé to Benjamin West, Vanderlyn called on his neoclassical training to capture Jane McCrea, a young white woman who was killed by a stray bullet during the Revolutionary War.
The facts of McCrea’s 1777 death, which occurred as she was traveling to meet her fiancé, are unknown. Vanderlyn based his painting on legend, which placed the blame squarely on Natives who allegedly scalped McCrea and killed her.
The legend, and later Vanderlyn’s painting, severed as propaganda to spark settlers’ anger and recruit soldiers to rally forces against the British. The painting depicts McCrea as a helpless but sensual white woman in the clutch of dark and savage Indians.
“Here, the American Indian symbolizes the brutality of the colonists’ enemy, England,” Lubin said. “Jane McCrea is a figure of civilization, of lightness, of enlightenment. The Indians are steeped in shadows, emerging out of darkness like monsters out of their lair. She’s the white consciousness beset by beastly figures.”
Falls of the Kaaterskill (1826) by Thomas Cole. This oil painting depicts a romantic view of a forest and waterfall, based on the Kaaterskill Falls, a two-stage, 260-foot plunge along Kaaterskill Creek in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The tiny figure of an Indian stands on a ledge between the two falls, a stick in his left hand.
“You can barely spot the Indian at the center of the composition,” Lubin said. “But he symbolizes the primal nature that Cole believed white civilization was wrongly destroying. For Cole, Indians represented the true America that capitalism was trouncing.”
The Rescue (1837) by Horatio Greenough. This 12-foot-tall marble statue that stood in front of the U.S. Capitol building depicts a confrontation between a tomahawk-wielding American Indian warrior and a pioneer family.
To the left of the sculpture, a pioneer woman withdraws from the warrior in terror, clutching a small child. In the center, an outsized frontiersman subdues the warrior but refrains from killing him, showing control of the situation and reducing the warrior to the status of child.
Greenough meant the statute as a memorial of the Indian race, he wrote, but also to “convey the idea of the triumph of the whites over the savage tribes.” The statue and its companion, Discovery of America by Luigi Persico, were removed from the Capitol in 1958.
The Death Struggle (1845) by Charles Deas. Born in Philadelphia in 1818, Deas was in his 20s when he journeyed westward to study and paint Indian tribes, earning a reputation for his oil paintings depicting Natives Americans and fur trappers in the mid-1800s.
His work expressed psychological tension between trappers and Indians, and often captured the moment of starkest danger. The Death Struggle depicts an Indian and a trapper falling to their deaths while locked in combat.
“This is a symbolic battle between a white fur trapper and two braves who try to prevent his territorial encroachment,” Lubin said. “The white guy and one of the Indians plummet off a cliff into the abyss.”
American Progress (1872) by John Gast. Perhaps one of the most-cited examples of propagandist art, American Progress portrays a large and precariously clad female version of America floating westward through the air.
Below, herds of buffalo and bands of Indians flee the encroaching settlers with their symbols of progress: trains, wagon trails, telegraph wires and America herself, toting a school book representing enlightenment and wearing the star of the empire on her forehead.
Intended as an allegory of Manifest Destiny, the painting conveys the ideas of American progress and Westward Expansion as inevitable. Created by Brooklyn artist John Gast, the painting was commissioned by George Crofutt, who published a series of western travel guides and reproduced the painting to help sell the Western frontier as a destination.