241 Native American or Classical Painting?

Kristina Mehegan

Unca Eliza Winkfield’s The Female American contains some beautiful and fantastical (and probably fictional) images of Native Americans as a race of people who have a particular connection with nature. They are savages, but their ways are charming. The following passage illustrates this perfectly:

“…a circle formed by a great number of Indians of both sexes, all naked, except a small covering of foliage about their middle, which decently covered the distinction of sexes. This local covering of several of the females was composed of beautiful flowers” (48).

This functions to create a picture of Native Americans as being primitive, but in a beautiful way. They are naked; they stand in a circle; to preserve modesty, they are wearing PLANTS around their waists. How charming!

This description in particular calls to mind classical paintings of Greek gods (such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, where Aphrodite’s hair conveniently covers her nether regions) and, most notably, Adam and Eve. You need look no further than this painting to see what I mean:

image
The Rebuke of Adam and Eve (1740) by Charles Joseph Natoire

Amazingly, this was painted mere decades before Winkfield’s book was published, meaning such depictions of Adam and Eve — the original humans, as primitive and close to nature as humans have ever been — were contemporary to her. There is one difference between this classical depiction and Winkfield’s descriptions, though.

Adam and Eve are white.* Native Americans are not.

Further in this section of the text, Winkfield describes how her mother Unca saved her father from being killed. She describes to her father’s attendants returning “I cannot say with his fair, but with his black deliverer…” (49)…that’s her mother she is talking about. She describes Native Americans in similar terms as Adam and Eve, being close to nature, being girded about the loins with plants, using shells and leaves and vines for everything they need, being straight up flower children in her depiction — but she herself, though she is supposedly mixed race, makes the very important distinction between Adam and Eve and Native Americans.

Native Americans are black. They are not “fair,” a word which literally means pale but later became synonymous with beautiful in common vernacular. So though Winkfield sees Native Americans as charming and connected to nature, she also sees and feels the need to state that they are other.

Sources:

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437180

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*Adam and Eve wouldn’t actually have been white, since they’re from what is now Iraq, but they are always depicted as being white because Ignorance & Racism. Wise up, artists.

 

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Native American or Classical Painting? by Kristina Mehegan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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