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Historical records abound with evidence that
used visual representations for many purposes. Early European observers
reported clan symbols carved or painted on gables of longhouses. Images
on trees, grave posts, and war posts also recorded exploits in visual
symbols. Tattoos and body painting were another common expression of the
visual dimension. Still later, clan symbols were used to sign treaties
and land deeds. The evidence for
use of bark, hide, powder
horns, and other surfaces for painting is less convincing, and easel
painting or sketching did not develop as a new art until the 19th
The earliest known Haudenosaunee easel painter is Dennis Cusick. LittIe is known about him but he may be the son of Nicholas Cusick, a Tuscarora chief and the brother of David Cusick, an historian and also a painter. Few paintings exist by Dennis Cusick. Watercolors done in 1821 show scenes from the Seneca Mission School under the direction of James Young at the Buffalo Creek Seneca reservation. Two other paintings exist by Dennis Cusick, one showing a Tuscarora village scene and the other the Christening of a native child. These and drawings by David Cusick are all that exist of early Iroquois paintings until 1852. "Indian Maidens" by Thomas Jacobs, dated March 27, 1852 is the only publicly displayed painting by this possible Tuscarora artist. The few other paintings ascribed to Thomas Jacobs are similar to "The Indian Maidens, for all show dignified, proper, but traditionally dressed Haudenosaunee.
By the turn of the century a few other
Haudenosaunee painters are recognized. Perhaps the best
known is Jesse Cornplanter. Beginning in 1901 Jesse Cornplanter worked off and on for
eight years making sketches for Arthur Parker the Seneca Director of The Rochester Museum.
While Cornplanter was then only in his early teens, he already had a fine command of his
subject matter, and his drawings were immediately recognized as important because they
depicted present-day Haudenosaunee life. Frederick Starr commissioned him to make a set of
sketches for what became "Iroquois Indian Games and Dances", a pamphlet
containing fifteen drawings that were published in 1903 to raise money to establish the Cornplanter Medal (Fenton 1980). Parker used Cornplanter's work in a number of
publications which brought considerable attention to the "boy Seneca artist".
His work is very valuable today because in scenes of a social nature,
Cornplanter often drew
accurate portraits of the way people dressed at the time, and in terms of detail, such as
how the longhouse looked or how a particular person appeared, he was faithful to what he
saw. In 1938 he published "Legends of the Longhouse," containing new drawings he
had done. During the 1930s he became involved in the Temporary Emergency Relief
Administration (TERA) arts and crafts project administered by Arthur Parker on the
Tonawanda and Cattaraugus Reservations. He contributed mainly his knowledge of
traditions and his carving, but the influence of his sketching was to have a permanent
influence upon all
Haudenosaunee painters to follow, mainly because Jesse Cornplanter selected
and defined the critical moments in legend or ritual that modern painters have developed
and further defined. His influence carries beyond painting, as many other artists, such as
stone carvers, have been inspired by his memories and his vision, and they continue to
create new interpretations of his original works.
Just as Parker had asked Jesse Cornplanter to draw sketches of Haudenosaunee life in the early 1900s, he commissioned a number of Haudenosaunee at Tonawanda and Cattaraugus to produce paintings and sketches on subjects Parker himself chose, often at first in consultation with William N. Fenton, who was a community worker at Tonawanda in 1935.
Sanford Plummer, in his twenties at the start of the TERA project, was a professionally
trained artist at Cattaraugus who had attended Beaux Arts of New York and the New York
Academy of Fine Arts. His paintings featured traditional
Haudenosaunee life. He particularly
liked to portray religious concepts. legends, ceremonial dances, and important historical
scenes such as "Law, The Reading of the Wampum", usually using watercolors in
basically a realistic style, but always being very economical in content so that
characters and objects were few but very meaningful. His work can be found at the
Rochester Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Buffalo Museum of Science. Plummer's work is
of exceptional quality, but has not received the attention it deserves.
More familiar to the general public are the paintings of Ernest Smith of Tonawanda, who became the mainstay at the painting program in the TERA project. Inspired by the earlier work and memories of Jesse Cornplanter and the landscape paintings of Roy Mason, and constantly learning from his own research on Haudenosaunee traditions, Smith created hundreds of paintings with watercolors, oils, and pen and ink. There is no question about the fact that Smith painted to preserve the memory of customs he felt younger people were not retaining. Encouraged by both Arthur Parker and William Fenton, Smith portrayed in visual ways what had been primarily oral and written traditions, and he tried to be as accurate as possible in details of material culture such as clothing and craft items. Before he died in 1975, Ernest Smith painted hundreds of works, usually using watercolor, and occasionally oils. At times he would attend the Indian Village at the New York State Fair to draw portraits of visitors. He also painted many works for American Indian Treasures, a shop in Guilderland, NY, and for a book he hoped to publish explaining and analyzing the various subject matters of his work. The legacy of his lifetimes effort is an invaluable portrait of Iroquois traditional ways, done in a clear, clean style that makes the past very much alive today. His paintings have had a considerable influence upon todays painters both in terms of style and subject matter.
The 1970s saw the full flowering of Haudenosaunee painting with a group of younger artists coming to the publics attention.