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Indians on the Eel River

George Winter, Indians on the Eel River (ca. 1850)

The First Nations have been a common subject throughout America's history. Many early artistic depictions portrayed the peoples of the First Nations as primitive savages without much, if any, comment or interpretation. In Indians on the Eel River, George Winter successfully creates a meaningful and sympathetic scene through the formal qualities of the painting.

George Winter (1809–1876) was born in Portsea, England, and studied art both in his hometown and in London. In 1830, he left for the United States with his family, continuing his training at the National Academy of Design in New York. As a member of the Hudson River School, Winter was committed to the creation of harmonious scenes by combining precise renderings of the natural features of a landscape in a suggestive, thoughtful narrative.

In 1837, Winter arrived in Logansport, Indiana, largely because of his interest in the culture of the Potawatomi and Miami tribes in the surrounding area. Winter established a relationship with these First Nations peoples and produced many drawings and watercolors of them and their surroundings. In the tradition of the Hudson River School, he combined his sketches to create a larger, idealized image in his paintings.

Meanings of Indians on the Eel River may be discerned with close inspection. At first, the painting might seem to just be a rosy twilight view of a river scene, with a group of native peoples inserted into the foreground to add interest. However, closer examination reveals the artist's concern with the poor treatment of these people by the early settlers and the policies of the federal government.

In 1838, the Potawatomi, along with other First Nations tribes across the eastern half of the United Sates, were forced to leave their homeland and march to a reservation in Kansas. This process of removal and displacement of the Native peoples is known as the "Trail of Tears" because of the suffering endured on this long journey and the loss of their ancestral lands. In Indians on the Eel River, Winter presents a melancholic, somber scene, with the Potawatomi confined adjacent to a few dead and dying trees on a small rocky island in the middle of a surging river. Gushing rapids are breaking through the landscape in the distance and joining the ensuing rush of this river. The entire painting is bathed in a pinkish tone, possibly suggesting twilight is at hand for the indigenous Americans.