30 April 2012

Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck: 18th Century German Artist in Georgia

"Ein Indianischer Kriegs Tanz" (An Indian War Dance), von Reck
 With the upheavals of disease, warfare, and relocation from the 16th through 19th centuries, much of our own history of our ancestors is lost to us. Spanish expeditions, following by waves of colonizers from other European Nations, brought diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, which are thought to have killed 90% of the indigenous population of the Americas. In the Southeastern Woodlands, the deerskin trade radically altered local economies and life ways, and wars were waged from the 18th century up until the forced relocations of the 1830s.

What was life like back in the early 18th century? How did people dress? What were their art forms? Fortunately some few Europeans came to the southeast not to plunder or destroy, but to learn and share. One such individual is Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck.

Von Reck lived from 1710 to 1798. He first traveled to Georgia in 1734, accompanying a group of Lutheran Salzburgers who established a settlement called Ebenezer (Hvidt 12-13).  In 1736, at the age 25, von Reck made his second ocean voyage to Georgia (Hvidt 7), Ebenezer was moved in 1736 to New Ebenezer (Runyon and Davis).

The new settlement was close to communities of Lower Muscogee Creeks and Yuchis, who had moved to Georgia from their ancestral homelands in eastern Tennessee. Von Reck regularly visited with Creeks and Yuchis and recording them in his travel diary, which he illustrated with 50 drawings and watercolor sketches (Hvidt 7). His writings were published back in the 18th century but his drawings remained unknown until they were rediscovered in 1977 at the Royal Library in Copenhagen (NHC).

Many of von Reck’s sketches were botanical or zoological specimens, accompanied by terms in Yuchi, Mvskoke, German, and sometimes French. His portraits of Yuchis and Creeks provide a window into their world prior to the American Revolution, when the deerskin trade with English flourished.

Particularly interesting are the images and descriptions of personal attire. He writes, “The Indians are usually five to six feet tall, upright, with good feet, robust bones, yet delicate, fine, and longish fingers, and perfect breasts” (45). He describes men cut their hair short, except for one long scalp lock. Women wore long hair, tied with red ribbons (45). Men painted their faces and chests, with red and blue pigment during ceremonial occasions, and red and black during warfare (45-6). Women only painted or tattooed their arms and chest (45). Indians wore earrings or feathers in their ears and rings with a bead through their nasal septa (45).

Ein Georgianischer Indianer under Indianerinn in ihrer Natürl. Kleidung shows a dual portrait of a man wearing a blue loincloth, holding a fletched arrow and stylized bow. The man has a “ring and pearl” in his septum piercing and wears small tuft of hair pointing upward. The woman has arrows and four-pointed shaped tattooed up her arm and a particular line tattooed on her ribcage. She wears a “coral” necklace. Her hair is parted in the middle and tied in a bun with a thin, red ribbon. She wears a knee-length blue skirt and holds a buffalo horn ladle (111).

Kipahalgwa, a Yuchi war leader, is painted in an extremely expressive portrait, down to the furrowed brow of the sitting model. The chief has a short topknot and a long flowing loose scalp lock. Both ears are adorned with soft, white feathers and large pearl earrings. His face is painted black on his chin and forehead with red around his nose, cheeks, eyes, and brow. A yellow zigzag runs across the top of his forehead. He is tattooed with two sets of parallel lines, one running vertically down his throat and meeting the second that runs horizontally from shoulder-to-shoulder. From these come black parallel rays, tapering off to a tip. He wears a white shirt, presumably of European manufacture, plain moccasins, and red deer hide legging with two white parallel lines running down each side and fringe.  At his ankles the leggings are cinched with thin garters (115).

Another portrait shows Senkaitschi and his wife, The Indian King and Queen of the Yuchis. The “queen” faces away from the viewer, wrapped in a woolen, trade blanket over her blue skirt. Her shoulder length hair hangs loose.  Senkaitschi has elaborate tattoos—wavy, horizontal lines on his forehead, complex lines on his cheeks, a collar, and parallel vertical rays on his chest, joined at the top, with alternating rays joined in the middle by rectangular shapes. The Yuchi chief wears blue leggings, with garters at his knees and ankles, moccasins with upright flaps, a short, red loincloth with two blue lines, and a buffalo robe (128).

A most intriguing image is Indianer welche auf die Jagd geben or Indians Going A-Hunting, which features three differently attired men. One man wears a white trade blanket with red trim, most likely a horse cloth traded at Charles Town for two deer hides. Another wears a unique hunting jacket, possibly influenced by European designs. The jacket is tailored with sleeves and large cuffs. It’s difficult to determine if the various lines on the jacket are from printed cloth or painted buckskin, but it is painted in a similar style to one man’s “painted leather blanket.” Painted hide robes are commons throughout the Plains, but this is the only example I’ve seen of a painted Southeastern Woodland hide robe. Thick red lines separate spaces filled by thinner lines and various red geometric shapes. The size of the robe suggests it could be elk or buffalo; however, multiple deer hides could have been sewn together. Two of the men have overstuffed supply packed carried over their shoulders by tumplines. The man with the hunting jacket carries a fur shot pouch with a thin shoulder strap.

Of the Yuchis, von Reck writes, “… nothing suits them better than hunting, fishing, swimming and waging war, for which they prepare from childhood with the most extreme diligence. And they possess such skill in shooting and in tricking the wild animals that they never fail their mark. They do not work, nor do they cultivate their fields, which, because of their noble blood, they consider slavish. And they consider it even more of a disgrace to work for wages… “ (Hvidt 40).

“The Creek nation is ruled by various kings who must win this preference or title through an especially brave deed,” von Reck writes of the Muscogee Creeks. “Otherwise the king is not distinguished from his subjects… In their councils the king presents the matter to the old, the old people present it to the young and then it is carried out. … If one is not equal to his office, they elect another” (Hvidt 41).

Von Reck describes the generosity of the local tribes. Tomochichi, a Yamacraw leader, heard how English colonists were ill and going hungry, so he sent a hunting party to bring game–personally seeing that enough meat was distributed to the poor and sick (41). “They love one another very much and give up their lives for each other. They pay close attention to people’s behaviour and whoever is selfish is shunned by them. … No one has more than a blanket, a pot, a hut and a musket. If he has two of anything, he gladly gives one to him who needs it more” (42).

While he doesn’t lavish much praise on the artistic accomplishments of the local Indians, von Reck does write, “They can copy out any drawings by pricking in wood. … The women weave baskets, mats, &c. of cane and weave with the fingers a kind of tapestry of silk grass and palmetto leaves, which is very strong and thick” (48). Silk grass is a common term for several plants, from milkweed to yucca, as well as plants of the genus Pityopsis— especially Pityopsis graminifolia or narrowleaf silkgrasswho are native to the southeastern United States (USDA).

“As strange and wild as the Indians seem superficially” to Europeans, von Reck writes, “yet when one associates with them, one finds they are very polite, of natural good understanding, sensible, brief in their conversation and agile in quick in their behavior” (46).

Ultimately, von Reck did not stay long in the Americas. He was caught between in fighting between Johann Martin Bolzius, the community’s pastor, and John Vat, the storekeeper (20). With enemies on all sides and reoccurring illnesses, Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck took a long route home back to Germany in 1736 (25). As Kristian Hvidt writes, “Like Voltaire’s fictitious hero in Candide, … von Reck had travelled through the continents, enduring all sorts of sufferings inflicted by nature and man, and concluded that the best thing would be to state at home cultivate his own garden” (24).

Von Reck’s sketchbook is online at the Center for Manuscripts & Rare Books at the Det Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Hvidt, Kristian, ed. Von Reck’s Voyage: Drawings and Journal of Philip Georg Friedrich von Reck. Savannah, GA: Beehive Press, 1980.
  • Runyon, Shane A. and Robert Scott Davis, Jr. “Ebenezer.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 18 March 2005. Web.
  • “Toolbox Library: 3. Native Americans.”  National Humanities Center. 2011. Web.
  • USDA. “Plants Profile: County Distribution: Pityopsis graminifolia (Michx.) Nutt.”  Natural Resources Conservation Service. Web.


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