Image-Making: E.A. Burbank's Portraits of Geronimo

The Newberry is not the first place one would expect to find a cache of fine art. Yet amid the vellum-bound incunables and illuminated prayer books in the library’s vault is one of the country’s richest small collections of American Indian portraiture: 25 oil paintings created by early 20th-century painter and illustrator Elbridge Ayer Burbank, including two of the Nde (Chiricahua Apache) war chief Goyaałé—or Geronimo, as he was by then known.

In all, Burbank would complete seven portraits of Geronimo, two of which are held by the Newberry. (One of these portraits is now on display in our permanent exhibition, From the Stacks.) Intimately scaled yet meticulously detailed, both portraits are masterful depictions of the war chief dressed in his regalia.

Yet to many contemporary scholars, the portraits belong to a tradition that perpetuated an insidious idea—that American Indians were a “Vanishing Race,” a people weakened by disease and overrun by soldiers and settlers, whose traces needed to be preserved for posterity while still possible by scholars, ethnographers, and artists. Given that many tribes were still vibrant, however, the Vanishing Race myth was a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” according to historian Brian Dippie. To Dippie and others, “[t]he myth of the Vanishing American accounted for the Indian’s future by denying them one, and stained the policy debate with fatalism.”

It’s difficult, and probably impossible, to avoid the conclusion that Burbank’s portraits reinforced the Vanishing Race myth: the painter seems to have intended them as ethnographic depictions of a disappearing people, they featured their subjects in the particular postures associated with ethnographic photographers, and they were received as ethnographic studies by contemporary audiences.

However, even if Burbank’s portraits typecast Geronimo as the member of a vanishing race, evidence suggests that Geronimo was far from passive in the process. A collection of Newberry-held letters sent by Burbank to his uncle, Field Museum President and future Newberry donor and trustee Edward E. Ayer, gives a detailed account of the painter’s experience working with the war chief. Composed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo was being held by federal authorities, these letters suggest that while complying with the wishes of Burbank—and those of the federal authorities—Geronimo exerted active control over Burbank’s work where he could.

Burbank arrived at Fort Sill on March 12, 1897, and immediately sought out Geronimo. Later that night, he penned his first letter to Ayer, describing his meeting with the Apache. After finding Geronimo at his house, the two men had set to talking with the help of a translator. By the end of the conversation, Burbank had arranged with Geronimo to paint the chief’s portrait: “He says he will sit for me any time and that I can use his house for a studio which am going to do so will commence his picture Tomorrow and he is going to dress up for me with a war bonnet on and an Indian blanket on also.” [Ed. note: Here and elsewhere, the text of Burbank’s letters has been left unedited.] Geronimo’s willingness “to dress up” must have given Burbank some relief, for as the painter noted in another letter, “Geronimo goes around with Soldiers clothes on.”

Even so, it was an entire week and half before Burbank was able to announce the completion of his assignment. “I finished with Chief Geronimo,” he wrote on March 21. “Today I have painted two fine likenesses of him one a full front view and the other a profile and I have painted him with his correct costume on.”

According to Burbank, Geronimo was pleased with the work, for, as Burbank related to Ayer, Geronimo had “the different Indians come in and…they all like the picture when I got through Geronimo patted me on the back and says good man, good man.”

But even while Geronimo was apparently happy with Burbank’s portraits, he also pushed back repeatedly against the painter’s intentions. Though Burbank reported that Geronimo “has signed his name to both of the pictures I painted of him,” he also admitted that he “had a hard time to get him to do it.” And while Geronimo ultimately agreed to sit for Burbank in regalia, he also drew a line: after finishing the first two portraits, Burbank reported that “I was going to paint a third profile of him in war paint he promised to paint his face up, but he backed out.” Finally, though Burbank’s assignment was to depict the war chief in regalia, Geronimo seems to have convinced Burbank to let him sit for one of the portraits in the soldier’s uniform he then commonly wore.

Geronimo was thus willing to collaborate in Burbank’s ethnographic project—but only to an extent. Rather than submitting wholly to the painter’s desire to depict him as an instance of a vanishing race, Geronimo sought to manage the image Burbank produced. What was his intention?

Nothing more than speculation is possible, yet evidence provides grounds for a hypothesis. Driven by his desire to escape indefinite imprisonment at Fort Sill, Geronimo may have seen his work with Burbank as an opportunity to refashion his public image along less threatening lines. By doing so, he may have believed, he could convince his captors that he and his followers could be safely released without any renewed threat of resistance.

In Indian Country, Martin Padget adopts this position, arguing that around the time of Burbank’s visit, Geronimo embarked on a veritable publicity tour and “used the opportunities made available to him to broaden his sphere of influence, earn money, and petition the president for the return of the Chiricahuas to their Arizona homeland.” Along similar lines, William Clement proposes in Imagining Geronimo that what likely pleased Geronimo about Burbank’s paintings was their humanizing “avuncularity,” which would have counteracted his then-dominant image in the press.

Whether or not this was his intention, Geronimo never managed to escape Fort Sill. He died there in February of 1909 from pneumonia contracted after spending an entire night exposed to the cold in the wake of a riding accident. “I should never have surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive,” he is said to have told his nephew from his deathbed. Burbank’s portraits offer a unique chance to reflect on the struggles of this extraordinary man, the nature of his legend, and the ever-dynamic relationship of art and power.

By Matt Clarke, Communications Coordinator at the Newberry