That won’t be a work of art I would consider hanging at home (even if I were rich enough).
The stern face of a native American (on Feb 27) with his eyes fixed at you, was not as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s, nor as pleasing as Little Miss Sunshine’s. This photographic work by American artist, William Henry Jackson, is called “Native American with a Medal of President Garfield”. Other than basic description about the work, there was not much details about the subject on MET website.
The portrait was made around the late 18th or early 19th century when photography was colourised with photochrom technique. And this is the first typo I found in the calendar with a missing “h” in “photochrom”.
One got to have sharp eyes and curious mind in life as well as to “see” a work of art. Apart from the typo, the fur pelt bandolier and fur wrapped braids, I also found fine lines of tribal paint across his cheek starting underneath his eyes. I couldn’t figure out the meaning of the exact pattern and colour, but if the below reference is correct, the marks represent either mourning or groom, or mourning for being a groom.
The next clue I felt curious about was the medal awarded by the then president James Garfield. Only by searching for the oval shape coin, did I know it was a piece of Indian Peace Medals, which were
“… issued by President James Garfield, United States of America, 1881. Peace medals played a significant role in relations between the United States government and the Native American population. Following the British and French practice of handing out silver medals to tribal chiefs, George Washington began a policy of presenting peace medals to American Indian leaders at treaty signings and other formal ceremonies.”
From the link of Museum Victoria below, we can see the reverse side of the medal. Appeared as gold medal in the photo, sources claimed the medal was made of silver. Regardless of the metal and reported counterfeit, it has its price on e-Bay.
The diameter of the medal seemed approximately 5 inches, implying his significance in bridging the natives with the US government. But who was he? Finally I got some more clues.
When I was searching “photochrom” images, this image appeared and it traced back to a blog talking about a book called An American Odyssey. From there, a caption underneath stated “Apache Chief James A. Garfield”. Wait a minute, James Garfield was the president, but why was he called a president name? It then led me to another image by an enthologist and photographer, Edward S Curtis. The description revealed something more about the Apache Chief:
Chief Garfield Velarda was a Jicarilla Apache named in honour of the 20th President of the United States of America and he lived to the age of 108.
Jicarilla Apache is one of the indigenious tribes living around New Mexico and Colorado. From the digital collection of Denver Public Library, more portraits of Chief Garfield in different tribal attire could be found – how popular he was! In the beginning, I joked about his face paint of being a regretful groom. However, from the images including the one featuring Apache Chief Garfield Velarda holding his little daughter’s hands, they all demonstrated his composure and flair of being a leader.
Though I don’t enjoy having it at home, this portrait unfolds stories from William Jackson to Edward Curtis, from Indian Peace Medal to Jicarilla Apache. Looking at art is to discover layers of clue communicated through the work.