07 February 2012

Narcissa Chisholm Owen: The Mother of Cherokee Painting?

Narcissa Owen, 1907, WikiMedia Commons
If Cecil Dick (1915–1992) is the “father of Cherokee painting,” then would a Cherokee woman born 84 years before him be the “mother of Cherokee painting”? Narcissa Chisholm Owen (1831-1911) won awards for her naturalistic oil painting, and several of her works survive in museum collections today.

Narcissa was born on October 3, 1831 at Webber Falls, Indian Territory (Jacobson and d’Ucel 265). Her father, Thomas Chisholm, was a chief of the Old Settlers, the Cherokees who migrated west prior to the 1838 forced removal known as the Trail of Tears.

She gave an extremely colorful version of her family tree, describing Thomas Chisholm as the “last hereditary head of the seven great clans that comprise the Cherokee Nation,” giving his Cherokee name as “Heil-Steky-Yearle” or “Little-Rusty-Knife.” She also described her ancestor and namesake as “Queen” Quatsis (NYT 1911), completely bypassing and overshadowing others’ claims of Cherokee Princess ancestors. Emmet Starr writes that Thomas Chisholm, who married Malinda Wharton, was elected Third Chief of the Western Cherokees on 16 July 1834, under the Principal Chief John Jolly (Starr 474). The Owen family was predominantly of Scots-Irish descent; however, her father apparently belonged to the ᎠᏂᎩᎶᎯ, Anigilohi, or Longhair Clan (NYT).

Narcissa majored in music and art at the College of Evansville in Indiana (265). In 1853, she married Robert Owen, a European-American railroad tycoon, and the couple eventually moved to Lynchburg, Virginia (265). The Civil War and aftermath left the family in poverty. Robert died in 1873, so Narcissa taught music to support herself and her two sons (265).

In 1880, Narcissa moved back to Indian Territory, with Robert Latham “Oconostota” Owen, Jr., who served as one of Oklahoma’s first US senators. Narcissa Owen taught music at the Cherokee Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi.

At the age of 62, Narcissa devoted herself seriously to painting (NYT). “In oil painting and miniatures I have of late years found great interest,” she told the New York Times reporter. "I also sometimes indulge in sketching in watercolors as an agreeable pastime."

Both Narcissa’s father and grandfather had been friends with Thomas Jefferson (Jacobson and d’Ucel 265). Her oil painting, Thomas Jefferson and His Descendants, won a medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, more commonly known as the St. Louis Exposition, in 1904. An additional painting won a diploma (NYT). Her three painting and several of her tapestries “were admired by the many thousands who visited the Territory pavilion” (US 270).

Thomas Jefferson and His Descendants is now part of the Herman Collection of the University of Virginia Art Museum. The medal belongs to the Oklahoma Historical Society, who also owns her 1896 self-portrait and a copy she made of Charles Bird King’s portrait of Sequoyah (Jacobson and d’Ucel 266).

In 1907, Owen published the book, A Cherokee Woman's America: Memoirs of Narcissa Owen, which has recently been republished in 2005 in a version edited by Karen L. Kilcup. Owen died on July 16, 1911 in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Both her self-portrait and the surviving Thomas Jefferson painting are technically adept and rooted in realism. Attention is lavished on details such as hair, faces, furniture, eyeglasses, and jewelry. The backgrounds and textiles are soft and muted, showcasing the warm, glowing flesh tones of the subjects. Even with such a small corpus of surviving known works, Owen’s pride in her Cherokee heritage is evident in her portrait of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary.

With her academic American art education and embrace of contemporary easel art techniques, Owen joins the ranks of Angel De Cora (Hochunk) and Edmonia Lewis (Ojibwe). Although these 19th century indigenous women artists had an education based on European-American perspectives, they used Native subject matter in their works, albeit not exclusively. Most significantly they exhibited their art in the mainstream art arena and kept abreast of new developments of the art world.
  • Jacobson, Oscar B. and Jeanne d’Ucel. “Art in Oklahoma.” Chronicles of Oklahoma. 32.3 (1954) : 263-277. Web.
  • United States, Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission. Final Report of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Commission, 1906. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906.
  • “Mother of U.S. Senator an Indian Queen; Mrs. Narcissa Owen, Daughter of the Last Chief of the Seven Great Cherokee Clans, Is a Charming Old Lady of Distinction Whose Talent in Art Has Won Recognition.” New York Times. 22 Jan 1911. Web.
  • Starr, Emmet. History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore. Oklahoma City, OK: The Warden Company, 1921. Web.
Do you know what the difference between the whites and the Indians in the matter of dress? No? Well, a white man will work himself to death to make his wife look pretty, while the Indian woman will do the same thing, and in addition nearly put her eyes out, doing beadwork to make her husband outshine all the other fellows.  – Narcissa Owen, 1911 (NYT)

Thanks so much to Jeff Briley, the deputy director of the Oklahoma History Center, for taking the time to let me see the 1896 self-portrait in person! I was able to photograph some interesting details such as the plaque, her signature, and an inscription on the back: "For my baby (R. L. Owen, Jr.)/N.O."

Sequoyah, Narcissa Owen after Charles Bird King
Her medal from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition can no longer be located; however, her copy of King's Sequoyah portrait hangs in a conference room on the first floor of the Oklahoma Judicial Center at 2100 N. Lincoln Boulevard, Oklahoma City. The room was in use when I visited, so I could only take a photo through the door.

The Oklahoma History center has blog worth checking out: Found in Collections.

1 comment:

Karen Coody Cooper said...

Narcissa also mentions in her bio a remembrance of watching her grandmother finger weave. Of course, I loved reading that since I finger weave.