Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chief Richardville's Portraits: An Unsolved Mystery

The recent well-deserved celebration of the Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville's house calls to mind the known images of the chief and the challenges that historians have faced in interpreting them. As one of the most prominent Native Americans of his generation and one of the wealthiest people of his time in Fort Wayne, it stands to reason that Richardville would have posed for his portrait. Indeed, there are two bonafide portraits of the chief with well-established provenance. The earliest is a watercolor painted in 1827 by James Otto Lewis as part of his Aboriginal Portfolio. Lewis visited northern Indiana, attended a treaty signing ceremony, and painted portraits of chiefs from several tribes. Conscious of the fact that his portraits would reach an eastern audience, he endeavored to portray them in their most exotic terms, complete with nose rings, pierced ears, and tattoos. His portrait of Richardville is quite conventional compared with the others. The chief wears a peace medal around his neck and is dressed in conventional clothing. Lewis portrait his eyes looking strangely upward - perhaps an oblique attempt to rob Richardville of his dignity. (See below).

 In old age, shortly before his death, Richardville posed for another portait by the noted Indiana artist R. B Crafft. This painting has long been privately held in the possession of his descendants. It has been widely reproduced and is considered an authentic, faithful, and sympathetic depiction of the chief. (See detail, below). Crafft painted a number of other portraits of Fort Wayne pioneers, including an image of Richardville's daughter Catherine and her husband, Chief Francis Lafontaine, both of which are in the collection of the Forks of the Wabash Museum.

A third portrait of a man with features similar to that of Richardville, painted by an unknown artist but perhaps Horace Rockwell, is also published widely as an image of Chief Richardville. (see below) It remains part of the collection of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society and even appears on brochures for the house. Despite the resemblance of this man to the chief, there are significant problems with this attribution. The date and exact provenance of this painting are not known. The clothing of the man appears to be from the 1830s or 1840s, a time when Rockwell was painting oil portraits of many prominent Fort Wayne residents. However, the subject appears to be far too young for that time period to be Chief Richardville, who was then quite elderly. The unknown gentleman seems to be in his 30s, at most, suggesting a birth date of the 1800s or 1810s - certainly not an image of the aging chief born in the 1760s. Perhaps the artist attempted to flatter Richardville by painting him as a young man, but a more likely hypothesis is that it is a portrait of one of his sons. Perhaps it is of his eldest son, John Richardville. The mystery begs further analysis by a Richardville genealogist and it remains unsolved.

 In any case, whoever this painting depicts, let us celebrate the accomplishments of this intriguing man and at the same time contemplate the mystery of the above image. Hopefully, a more accurate attribution will one day be made.

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