The Indian Craze: Primitivism, Modernism, and Transculturation in American Art, 1890-1915

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In the early twentieth century, Native American baskets, blankets, and bowls could be purchased from department stores, “Indian stores,” dealers, and the U.S. government’s Indian schools. Men and women across the United States indulged in a widespread passion for collecting Native American art, which they displayed in domestic nooks called “Indian corners.” Elizabeth Hutchinson identifies this collecting as part of a larger “Indian craze” and links it to other activities such as the inclusion of Native American artifacts in art exhibitions sponsored by museums, arts and crafts societies, and World’s Fairs, and the use of indigenous handicrafts as models for non-Native artists exploring formal abstraction and emerging notions of artistic subjectivity. She argues that the Indian craze convinced policymakers that art was an aspect of “traditional” Native culture worth preserving, an attitude that continues to influence popular attitudes and federal legislation.

Illustrating her argument with images culled from late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century publications, Hutchinson revises the standard history of the mainstream interest in Native American material culture as “art.” While many locate the development of this cross-cultural interest in the Southwest after the First World War, Hutchinson reveals that it began earlier and spread across the nation from west to east and from reservation to metropolis. She demonstrates that artists, teachers, and critics associated with the development of American modernism, including Arthur Wesley Dow and Gertrude Käsebier, were inspired by Native art. Native artists were also able to achieve some recognition as modern artists, as Hutchinson shows through her discussion of the Winnebago painter and educator Angel DeCora. By taking a transcultural approach, Hutchinson transforms our understanding of the role of Native Americans in modernist culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“While the experience of modernism in less urban western places was no doubt different, modernism still must have been present. Without the insights of Hutchinson's book, however, historians could not even begin to identify modernism in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century. In short, The Indian Craze is a potentially paradigm-shifting book, one that will force new discussions of who participates in the modern world and how.”
- Flannery Burke, Journal of American History

The Indian Craze revives a politically charged and artistically productive era, while challenging the binarism modern/antimodern art. . . . As Hutchinson effortlessly engages with the discourse on modernity, she also mindfully reveals that Native American art in all its forms is not a subclass of America’s art history, but is, in fact, part of its continuum, which early and substantially contributed to the ‘conversation’ about what counts as American art.” - Linda M. Waggoner, Great Plains Quarterly

“Hutchinson’s study demonstrates superior scholarship. It is detailed and nuanced and builds a complex and convincing argument. The Indian Craze provides a welcome and highly readable addition to the existing scholarship on this period.” - Jennifer McLerran, Journal of Arizona History

The Indian Craze is an important addition to the art histories of Native North America and the United States alike. Hutchinson convincingly argues that the Anglo art world’s interest in Native American art and culture predates World War I, a few decades earlier than has generally been considered. . . . The Indian Craze shows us the innumerable benefits of attempting the difficult reconstruction of Native voices.” - John Ott, Visual Resources

“The stakes and interest of this excellent study go much beyond the limits of its specific historic topic, the sudden fashion of Native American art around 1900. . . . Hutchinson’s book will provide the reader with many valuable insights in mainly three fields. . . . First, it offers a careful and well-balanced description of what the Indian craze actually meant. . . . Second, the book is also a key contribution to a new understanding of modernism in Western art and culture. . . . Third, Indian Craze is also a major contribution to the issue of transcultural hybridization.” - Jan Baetens, Leonardo

“Hutchinson’s framework of cultural contextualization makes this a dynamic look at a compelling (and under-researched) topic. Illustrated with both black and white and color plates, this book is recommended for academic and non-academic audiences interested in the topics of American art, Native art, education, racial politics, or American history. It is a book that will spark curiosity and serve as the basis for future scholarship.”
- Heather Kline, ARLIS/NA Reviews

The Indian Craze is a lucid and compelling account of the entangled histories of Native and European-American aesthetic and intersubjective exchange in the formative years of American modernism. Told with deep historical understanding, it restores subjecthood and agency to Native artists too often deprived of both by the persistence of primitivizing attitudes. Such studies as Elizabeth Hutchinson’s offer a very different, insistently hybrid history of modernism, sensitive to the ethical ambiguities that reside in virtually every instance of uneven encounter between colonizer and colonized. This is a long-awaited contribution to how we understand the complex cultural negotiations attendant on the growing aesthetic value accorded to Native arts around the turn-of-the-century.”—Angela Miller, lead author of American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity

The Indian Craze is not only a delight to read; it is a major contribution to American visual cultural studies. Wearing her erudition lightly, Elizabeth Hutchinson participates in and adds appreciably to the transcultural critiques that so many of us are interested in now.”—Janet C. Berlo, co-author of Native North American Art

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344087
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/23/2009
  • Series: Objects/Histories Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,432,969
  • Product dimensions: 6.90 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Art History at Barnard College, Columbia University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Indian Craze

By Elizabeth Hutchinson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4390-5

Chapter One

An Indian Corner in your home adds to the artistic effect. Advertisement for the Hyde Exploring Expedition, 1902

Unpacking the Indian Corner

In 1903, the magazine The Papoose published seven photographs of the "Indian corner" installed by the cartoonist and publisher Joseph "Udo" Keppler in his Manhattan home (figure 1). The photographs reveal three connected spaces: a large "den" that includes a desk and seating area, a small alcove with a day bed, and a connecting hall dominated by a glass case (figure 2). Each space teems with Native American artifacts accented by simple furnishings. Keppler's collection was not unique. The Indian corner was a widespread home decoration fad that was promoted by illustrated magazines, Indian traders, and urban marketers, including department stores. Owners of Indian corners ranged from people of modest means who kept a few items on a shelf to large-scale collectors such as Keppler, many of whom accumulated valuable and important pieces that later became the core of museum collections across the country.

While many photographs of Indian corners were published at the turn of the century, the Papoose photographs of Keppler's display offer an unusually rich document of such a space. They show objects drawn from a wide variety of Native American nations. On one wall of the study, the rounded forms of southwestern basket plaques mingle with dangling beaded bags gathered from Plains tribes. The other wall bears a collection of Iroquois false-face masks. Navajo blankets cover the floor and several pieces of furniture, their contrasting geometric patterns providing a dazzling display. A print portraying a Sioux warrior is wedged into the corner. In other photographs, we can see a hearth surrounded by clubs, arrows, masks, and Hopi trays; a standing case filled with more plains beadwork; and an alcove appointed in a similar fashion to the main room.

Photographs of other Indian corners from contemporary publications reveal Keppler's collection as elaborate but typical (see figure 3). Indian corners routinely included handicrafts of diverse materials and cultural origins. Such diversity is reflected in a 1904 article on this decorating "fad," which described a room thus: "a Winnebago curtain drapes an ample doorway, an Iroquois blanket stains the wall with brilliant color, and one of Navajo weave conceals a couch." As in Keppler's home, collectors clustered objects made of the same materials together, sometimes in a special case or set of shelves. Even if the collector focused on a single kind of object, such as baskets or weavings, the display generally juxtaposed examples of the medium from different tribes and areas resulting in an array of diverse shapes, patterns, and ornaments. A graphic representation of an Indian-a calendar or a photograph or, perhaps, a framed print-usually accompanied the handicrafts.

Such pictures were known as "Indian portraits." They came in a variety of mediums and sizes. They could also conform to different styles. The Sioux man on Keppler's wall resembles the straightforward, almost ethnographic, busts of nationally known Indian painter Elbridge Ayer Burbank (figure 4). In 1898, the Chicago-based magazine Brush and Pencil published an article on Burbank that included copies of his portraits that could be cut out and framed. The magazine published other Burbanks in subsequent issues and also offered copies via mail order. Prints weren't the only form of Indian portraiture-photographers such as Frank A. Rinehart vended their wares through advertisements, and art dealers and Brush and Pencil also promoted so-called Indian calendars, proclaiming one "The Sensation of the Year." In keeping with their title, Indian portraits were usually annotated with the name of the sitter. But they tend to position the sitter as passive. Chief Blue Eagle, for example, doesn't attempt to engage the viewer's gaze, but instead looks away, as do the subjects of the portraits on Keppler's walls. These isolated figures are usually depicted in traditional dress and engaged in a "timeless" activity, such as caring for children, or doing nothing at all.

In many ways, the Indian portraits are the key to the Indian corner, for this simulated presence of the original makers and users of the objects on display highlights their assumed absence from modern domestic space. Indian corners define their owners as not Native and thus also as having none of the qualities associated with indigenous people. Not dependent on preindustrial tools, collectors are able to appreciate them for their aesthetic value alone. The ability to collect such objects is a hallmark of a modernity presumed available only to European Americans. A poem by Alvida Kelton Lee published in 1899 highlights this impression:

Down from my study walls they gaze, These grave, grim men of alien race; They make me dream of some dim forest maze Or wild trail leading on to wilder place.

... From that dark frame a brave old warrior looks His calm disdain upon my pampered ease, Till I could trade my easy-chair, my books, For mat of rushes by the brown tepees

... They give me strength, each pictured face, They teach me scorn of petty ills, And courage to press onward in the race, Up to the summit of life's highest ills.

Lee's poem repeats the Indian corner's pattern of juxtaposing two antithetical worlds, the wild forest and the comfortable study. But though the writer describes the natural world as having greater appeal than her own, she presents it as one impossible to reach. Similarly, the portraits in Keppler's corners do not offer windows onto actual Indian lives but situate their models in blank expanses of space into which the viewers can project their own interpretation. Rather than document individuals' and tribal nations' complex negotiations with their changing circumstances, these portraits and the collections of which they are a part are designed to stimulate the collector's imagination.

Discussions of the Indian corner frequently link it to "antimodernism," a term coined by T. J. Jackson Lears to describe the "recoil from 'overcivilized modern existence to more intense forms of physical or spiritual experience," identified with preindustrial culture. The fact that many collections were installed in Adirondack cabins, hunting lodges, and suburban dens-places associated with male retreat from bureaucratic labor and urban commercialism-reinforces this interpretation. These associations are not incorrect, but they are incomplete, most obviously as they fail to account for the ways in which collecting Native American art was also a means of embracing modern culture. As I will show, the acquisition of Indian handicrafts at the turn of the century must be understood as an aspect of, as well as an antidote to, the spread of commodity culture. The accumulation and display of these goods demonstrated a sensitivity to the material object and a capacity for taste that were distinctly modern pleasures.

The craftspeople who supplied the work displayed in these collections also negotiated modernity's promises and challenges. While Euro-American collectors may not have known it, many of the designs, techniques, and forms of the objects they owned were innovations developed by craftspeople aware of non-Native markets. It is thus useful to understand the Indian corner as a "contact zone," a term defined by anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt as a space of intercultural negotiation in which European Americans and Natives encounter each other's practices and values, albeit under conditions of radical inequality.

In this chapter I explore the modernity of the Indian corner by reading it in relationship to the spread of the culture of consumption. In doing so, I look closely at both the contents and the display of collections of Native American art. Key to my argument is the fact that indigenous handicrafts were both purchased and displayed in urban contexts. Departing from studies that emphasize Indian traders based on or near reservations, I look at marketers and collectors located in major cities, particularly New York. The cosmopolitan nature of the city allows me to explore the participation of Indian people, including Native artists, in the culture of consumption. During this period, Indian people regularly flowed through the cities of the United States on diplomatic missions, as members of performing groups, en route to government boarding schools, and increasingly as individuals in search of the employment and social opportunities offered by a modern city.

This work bears a debt to earlier work on the marketing of Native American art. Early studies of Indian traders have been joined by examinations of curio dealers in western cities. To this date, however, few have paid attention to the sale of Native handicrafts in eastern cities. The lack of scholarship here is a shame, because ignoring the urban component of this history can unintentionally reinforce the very primitivism that studies of so-called tourist arts seek to challenge, by associating Native American art with western reservations and tourist depots perceived as removed from cosmopolitan modernity. Phil Deloria has noted the persistence of the cultural trope of the primitive Indian to this day, despite the fact that we all know better. "According to most American narratives," he writes, "Indian people, corralled on isolated and impoverished reservations, missed out on modernity.... [However,] a significant cohort of Native people engaged the same forces of modernization that were making non-Indians reevaluate their own expectations of themselves and their society." By acknowledging the role of Native art in the metropolitan phenomenon of the Indian corner, we can reinsert Native Americans and their art into the modern history of which they were a part.


Personal collections of Native American objects date to the earliest years of European settlement of the American frontier. Thomas Jefferson installed some of the materials brought back by Lewis and Clark at Monticello, and a fair number of military officers picked up souvenirs on western postings. But the spread of this taste beyond individuals with regular contact with Indian people is a Victorian development, facilitated by advances in both domestic decoration and the distribution of Native American handicrafts.

The Indian corner is an example of the "cozy corner," a type of domestic space developed in the mid-nineteenth century. The first cozy corners were outfitted with pillows and textiles from the Middle East, reflecting an Orientalist association of the region with comfort and luxury, but Japanese themes were also common. Cozy corners reflect the shifting association of middle-class homes in the second half of the nineteenth century from sites of work to retreats from the workaday world. This change defined a new role for domestic decoration: to provide cheer and nurture individuality. Because of the increasing array of manufactured and imported furnishings available in the Gilded Age, the selection of household decorations was influenced not only by their comfort and convenience but also by the emerging notion that taste was an expression of personal identity. Cozy corners provided casual spaces for familial interaction that were filled with objects with stimulating forms and textures from exotic locations that epitomized the association of home with escape from modern urban culture.

This phenomenon was influenced by the ideas of the British critics John Ruskin and William Morris, which spurred an international arts and crafts movement. The term "arts and crafts" has been associated with an unrealistic desire to return to a premodern utopian age; Eileen Boris suggests the term "aesthetic reform" as a more appropriate description of the efforts that followers of Ruskin and Morris undertook to influence the culture of the Progressive Era. The movement placed particular emphasis on the value of household furnishings, suggesting that exposure to simple, well-designed, often handmade wares in the home could help assuage what Ruskin called "the anxieties of the outer life" and develop character and taste. Aesthetic reformers praised cultures perceived as untainted by modern industrialism, celebrating the craftsmen of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and looking in modern vernacular traditions for examples of honesty and simplicity in materials and design. Aesthetic reformers celebrated the material culture of rural areas such as Ireland as survivals of premodern traditions. They also looked to non-European culture as a source, especially cultures falling under the political and economic influence of European superpowers. Handcrafted exotic objects from Asia, including Indian paisley shawls, Arabian carpets, and Japanese screens, were brought into the bourgeois home as more "authentic" and healthful than the machine-made bibelots of Western culture. This rhetoric also facilitated the market for Native American objects. While all types of cozy corner were grounded in notions of the exotic, each had particular associations. As I will discuss below, for American audiences, Indian corners were understood to address a variety of cultural needs arising at the turn of the century, particularly the desire for an individual and national sense of mastery in the face of the increasing alienation brought on by industrialized work, urban life, and international trade.

The origins of the Indian corner reveal it to be an artifact of the very modernization it was thought to ameliorate. Specifically, this collecting practice is intimately linked with western expansion. The Indian corner idea was probably inspired by the collections of two prominent New Englanders intimately linked with the investigation of Native life: the writer Helen Hunt Jackson and the ethnographer Frank Hamilton Cushing. Both traveled extensively in the West in the 1880s, the period when the reservation system was becoming codified. Jackson was a travel writer whose exposure to the condition of Native Americans led her to pen the best-selling Indian reform-oriented novel Ramona. Cushing conducted ethnographic expeditions to the Southwest, first under the auspices of the Smithsonian and later for the Boston philanthropist Mary Tileston Hemenway. Each was the subject of admiring profiles in the periodical press, some of which mentioned their collections of Native American art.

These early models notwithstanding, the Native version of the cozy corner was dependent on the development of off-reservation distribution of Native American handicrafts. Native Americans had traded baskets, blankets, apparel, and tools with their non-Indian neighbors since the beginning of European settlement. In some areas, such as Niagara Falls, craftspeople also produced curios to sell as souvenirs to tourists. The marketing of Native American art exploded at the end of the nineteenth century, when traders began addressing urban consumers directly through advertisements, special sales, and mail-order catalogues, enabling them to purchase goods from a wide array of areas without leaving the city. One well-informed writer claimed in 1901 that $18,000 of Indian goods was being sold in New York annually.

Who was buying this material? Otis Mason's Aboriginal American Basketry, first published as an annual report of the National Museum (now the Smithsonian Institution) but republished in 1904 by Doubleday, includes an eight-page appendix listing the collections of prominent Americans such as John Wanamaker, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, and Mrs. Leland Stanford, as well as those of other, less well-known individuals spread across the country. 19 A closer examination of one such collection, that of Udo Keppler, will reveal some of the reasons for this popularity.


Excerpted from The Indian Craze by Elizabeth Hutchinson Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1 Unpacking the Indian Corner 11

2 The White Man's Indian Art: Teaching Aesthetics at the Indian Schools 51

3 Playing Indian: Native American Art and Modern Aesthetics 91

4 The Indians in K&aumlet;sebier's Studio 131

5 Angel DeCora's Cultural Politics 171

Epilogue 221

Notes 235

Selected Bibliography 263

Index 267

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2009

    Excellent reading

    enlightens a fascinating time in America with wit and understanding.

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