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May 23, 2019

Mid-Morning Open Thread [Kris]

Wright Indian Widow.jpg

Indian Widow
Joseph Wright of Derby

Joseph Wright is most known for his paintings of scientific experiments during the Late Enlightenment era. His work has many traits associated with both Neoclassicism and Baroque, but he was neither. This specific work, however, is heavy Romantic. It is totally allegory that combines symbols from different cultures to mourn the decline of the Native civilizations of the Americas.
Another title for this work is The Widow of an Indian Chief Watching the Arms of Her Deceased Husband. The woman in the dead center of the work is rendered in a highly classical way. Her clothing is more like the robes and clothing you’d see on a Greco-Roman goddess. She is topless and barefoot, another subtle sign of her classical origins and a clue that she is an allegory. In a lot of European art of the Colonial Era, the four continents were personified as idealized women with appropriate costumes, accessories and/or animals. The woman here is America, who was almost always a nude or nearly nude female with an elaborate feathered headdress. In many Amerindian cultures feathered headdresses are symbols of pride, identity and achievement, but here it is pathetic. It is stripped and droopy. America is diminished.

In addition, some scholars have concluded that Wright is using the Mohawk Nation as the model for this woman based on the designs on the surrounding items. To the British, the Mohawks represented American Indians in general. As the most Eastern of the Iroquois, they would have been the first group from that Empire that the British encountered. The Iroquois were very respected by the British and the Mohawk became their aesthetic representative and the stand-in for Indians generally. You’ll find this imagery in a lot of British art of the era.

The tree stump next to her is draped with her husband’s tomahawk, bow and quiver, pipe and cloak, all symbols of his warrior status, rank and authority. The tree stump is a European symbol of death—a life cut short. Her pose is a traditional pose of sad acceptance of fate, thoughtfulness and melancholy. Indian power and prestige has died and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. She sits on a cliff overlooking the sea while a volcano erupts in the background creating a black swirling cloud and lightening that just so happens to frame the woman and draw our eyes to her and her grief. If she is a Mohawk, then this is New York. Last I checked there are no volcanoes in New York not in Eastern America, which is what the British would have known, so the volcano has to be pure symbolism. It may be modeled after Vesuvius. Pompeii and Herculaneum had just been discovered some decades before and were still influencing culture by this time. Pompeii and Vesuvius therefore became symbols of lost civilizations, tragedy, and apocalyptic events.

Joseph Wright of Derby is depicting the fall of the American civilizations, maybe the Iroquois in particular. It is a depiction of the tragedy of the Noble Savage, a very Romantic concept.

[Kris has graciously agreed (after much begging from me, to write an occasional art thread. Look for her name on the headline so you won't be surprised to find actual informed art criticism on these august pages]

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posted by CBD at 09:30 AM

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