By Laura F. Fry, Senior Curator and Curator of Art, Gilcrease Museum
In his all-too-brief career, Kiowa artist Monroe Tsatoke experimented with a variety of painting styles and helped establish a new trajectory for modern Native American art in the early 20th century. His painting Portrait of an Indian Man, recently repaired by the excellent conservators of the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts, demonstrates how Tsatoke combined Kiowa traditions with European avant garde painting.
In 2016, while researching Native American paintings in the Gilcrease collection, I found Portrait of an Indian Man deep in the vaults. Long before entering the Gilcrease collection, the painting had evidently been rolled and then flattened, resulting in several horizontal creases running across the canvas. The creases buckled and distorted the surface, almost like scars running across the portrait’s face. Yet beyond the distracting surface damage, I saw a captivating work of art. The figure’s face is beautifully rendered in bold brushstrokes — with striking pale green highlights. With a quick search for a signature, I discovered the artist was Monroe Tsatoke, one of the “Kiowa Six” artists from Oklahoma. While Tsatoke is best known for helping develop the flat style of Native American painting in the 1920s and ’30s, this portrait’s style and unconventional palette is much more similar to early 20th-century European modernist paintings.
In the early 1900s, French artist Henri Matisse experimented with vivid, unorthodox colors, rejecting photographic realism. Critics referred to Matisse and his fellow artists as “fauves” or “wild beasts” for their use of vivid, jarring colors. Matisse famously painted his wife Amelie with her face contoured in vibrant green in Portrait of Madame Matisse, The Green Line, 1905. Tsatoke’s Portrait of an Indian Man, with its exaggerated shadows, green highlights, and piercing eyes, is reminiscent of works by Matisse and other fauvist painters. When Tsatoke and the other Kiowa Six artists studied with Swedish artist Oscar Jacobson at the University of Oklahoma in the 1920s, Jacobson strongly encouraged them to work with watercolor and tempera on paper and maintain a flat, representational painting style. However, Tsatoke clearly absorbed a wider range of influences and experimented with a variety of painting styles and materials.
Tsatoke’s Portrait of an Indian Man portrays a contemporary Kiowa individual from the 1930s. He asserts his identity with an intricate beaded vest and colorful scarf, his long hair bound in braids under a towering 10-gallon hat. His steady gaze confers a calm sense of pride and purpose. Rendered in a modernist European painting style, the portrait demonstrates that this individual can adapt and be fully part of the modern world while retaining his distinct Kiowa heritage. Portrait of an Indian Man is now beautifully conserved and restored to its original appearance. For the first time, we look forward to placing this portrait on view in the Gilcrease galleries in the near future.