Published: July 24, 2001
Peabody Essex Features the Master Prints of Edward Curtis
SALEM, MASS. – Edward Sheriff Curtis was just 33 years old in 1901 when he began his legendary effort to document the life and cultures of the North American Indian through photographs and interviews. By 1930 he had studied more than 80 tribes, taken more than 40,000 photographs, and earned the support of Theodore Roosevelt and J. P. Morgan, among others.
A century later “the work of Edward Curtis is so ubiquitous that his vision of the American Indian has in fact become the popular vision of the American Indian,” says Clark Worswick, curator of photography for Peabody Essex Museum.
On November 9 the Peabody Essex Museum will mount a landmark exhibition of Curtis’s work. “The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: ” will showcase more than sixty original prints drawn form the Peabody collection, considered the finest museum compilation of Curtis prints anywhere. They represent those images that Curtis himself selected for an exhibition he called “The North American Indian,” which traveled to Boston and other US cities in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.
In 1905 and 1906 Curtis put together a series of exhibitions also called “The North American Indian,” which traveled the East Coast and eventually to Boston. There, Dr Charles Goddard Weld, a lover of photography and supporter of Peabody Essex Museum, purchased 110 prints Curtis had made for exhibit.
This collection was Curtis’s own exhibition of his photographs. The 14-by-17 inch prints were mounted in “salon style” art nouveau mounts and signed by Curtis. Each master print is unique and remains in pristine condition.
The exhibition will showcase fine examples of Curtis’s best-known images: the vivid portraits of Indian leaders, warriors, women and children. The exhibition includes a host of famous Curtis portraits, further distinguished by the exceptional quality of the prints.
Much debate has swirled around the authenticity of Curtis’s photography. He had tribal leaders wear anachronistic headdresses and costumes. He placed his subjects in highly idealized settings, often in dramatic pose. His re-created rituals and customs were at times inaccurate. He attempted the difficult feat of depicting a traditional Indian culture that was changing rapidly as a result of its contact with European Americans. Worswick, though, does not believe such facts diminish Curtis’s accomplishments.
“Was he using them – exploiting them?” Worswick asks. “My answer – and here’s where I depart from many of my colleagues – is that these photographs were a joint creation. The Indians were the willing participants in creating an image. Here were people who were living under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, yet were able to retain a profound sense of human dignity. Curtis was able to capture that dignity.”
Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Curtis opened his first photography studio in 1891. His reputation as an artist grew after his photograph of “Princess Angeline,” daughter of Chief Seattle, was published around 1895. Soon after that he committed himself to visually documenting every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi River.
Curtis’s photographs combined highly skilled artistry and technical capacity. They caught the attention of Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, who later agreed to underwrite Curtis’s effort to publish The North American Indian. That effort resulted in perhaps the most expensive series of books ever produced, which today would cost $35 million to publish.
Located in the historic seaport of Salem, the museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 pm, Sunday. For information, call 800-745-4054.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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