Henry Wood Elliott   A n  A m e r i c a n  A r t i s t  i n  A l a s k a


"Coast of Vancouver Island, off Clayoquot Sound, June 30, 1874. Makah Indians running back to Cape Flattery from the Halibut shoals, where they have been fishing all day." MS 397,353.

 

From verso: "Watercolor by; Henry Wood Elliott painted in 1866 at Port Essington, Brit. Columbia / just south of Port Rupert." MS 397,353.

 

"Fishing from Kaiaks." 1872. MS 7119.

 

"Eskimo Man with Harpoon." Undated. MS 7119.

 

"Fishing from Kaiaks, Captains Harbour." 1872. MS 7119.

 

"Aleutians Striking Humpback Whales: off Akootan Island, Bering Sea." Undated. MS 7119.

 

"Old woman, Washakis Camp." 1870. MS 397,353.

 

"Eskimo Whaling and Walrus Camp,. Icy Point, Arctic Ocean, Alaska. Lookout created of drift logs." 1891. MS 7119.

 

"View of Settlement and Fishing Trap." Undated. MS 7119.

 

History remembers Henry Wood Elliott (1846-1930) as an eccentric character who helped save the Alaska fur seals from probable extinction, but he was also one of the first American artists to work in Alaska. His images of the Pribilof Island fur seals assisted the public in visualizing an animal and a way of life that most people had never seen. They sparked conservation sentiment that led to the recognition of the fur seal as a valuable renewable resource that needed protection (Elliott 1976 [1881])

The fur seals, however, were not the only subjects Elliott painted. Alaska's Native people and their activities spurred his imagination. Elliott expressed his views on Alaska's Native people in his best-selling travel book, Our Arctic Province. Like many late 19th century artists, Elliott stereotypes his Native subjects, using them as picturesque features to draw attention to often spectacular landscape scenery, and focuses primarily on the activities and cultural settings of his subjects in an attempt to record a vanishing lifestyle (Moore 1997; Woodward 1993, 1998).

A collection of Elliott's works in the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives amply illustrates his handling of his Alaska Native subjects. Manuscript 7119 includes 15 handpainted photographic enlargements, ranging in size from 30 x 40 inches to 94 x 34 inches; Manuscript 397,353 includes five smaller watercolors.

Elliott renders his Native figures as specific types; within them his subjects generally look alike. For instance, in an approach characteristic of the late-nineteenth century belief in the validity of physical types, he describes his drawings of the Tlingit Indian groups near Sitka in Our Arctic Province by stating that all the various tribes share the same physical characteristics. Indeed, everyone seems so much alike that "...the margin of distinction up here between the ten or eleven clans which ethnologists enumerate is so slight that only a practised eye can declare them" (Elliott 1897[1886]:44). For each Native group Elliott lists general features "all" the members of that culture share.

"Fishing from Kayaks" (1872), an image of three Aleut men halibut fishing, illustrates this type casting. All of the fishermen share the same Mongolian-like facial characteristics and resemble one another so much that they could be mistaken for triplets. What seems to have interested Elliott most in this image is the action; he has a marked tendency to pay scant attention to his figures and focus on their activity or their cultural settings. Elliott also habitually places his figures back in the middle distance with either their backs or sides to the viewers. When these figures do face forward, they rarely look directly at the viewer but have their eyes cast down, intent on some activity. The halibut fishermen are a fine example. This treatment of the human figure also allowed Elliott to somewhat mask his lack of formal art training. Objects in the middle distance do not require as much detail and by averting his subjects' faces, he neatly avoided having to deal with the difficulty of drawing the human figure.

Elliott may not have paid much attention to the individual in his work but he missed little else. In an attempt to record the cultural life of Alaska's Native people for posterity, he lavished attention on his subjects' subsistence lifestyle, clothing, dwellings, and the tools needed for everyday living. "Fishing from Kayaks, Captains Harbour" (1872) shows an Aleutian man cod-fishing. The man has his back turned to the viewer as he hauls in his catch and stores it in the front hatch of his kayak. The kamleika or gut parka, the shape of the kayak, the oar, the fish, and the rope are all beautifully rendered and highly detailed. The Unalaska coastline with its steaming volcano is also richly defined. The absence of figure-to-viewer interaction and the spectacular setting combine to create a timeless and almost spiritual quality.

Concentrating on everything but the figure, Elliott's Native persons seem to lose a portion of their humanity and transform into exoticized landscape elements. Elliott believed that nature formed an integral part of the Native's physical and spiritual being. As he explained:

...these savages were created for the wild surrounding of their existence, expressly for it, and they live happily in it. Change this order of their life, and at once they disappear, as do the indigenous herbs and game before the cultivation of the soil and the domestication of animals (Elliott 1897[1886]:42).

That Elliott seems to depict a world set apart from the ordinary may be an unconscious reflection of his emotive state. Prior to 1890 Elliott's images of Alaska, especially the Pribilof subjects have a Garden of Eden quality to them. Potentially disturbing topics such as the seal harvest in "Natives Clubbing and Skinning Seals" do not perturb the viewer. The men go about their various tasks in a calm, still and almost luminous atmosphere.

The frequent use of "God's light" in Elliott's images also suggests a landscape paradise. "Aleutians Striking Humpback Whales: off Akootan [sic.] Island, Bering Sea" depicts several Aleut hunters in double-hatched kayaks pursuing a pod of humpback whales. At least two hunting teams prepare to harpoon their quarry. As with the sealing image the whale hunt is not a disturbing image. The sun sends streamers benevolently down upon the sea and its occupants. The Native people appear to be acting as props to draw more attention to the landscape as in a timeless world.

In short, art often reveals more about the artist than it does the subject. Henry Elliott could not escape the tenets, thoughts, and morality of the Victorian culture in which he lived. His images of the Native people of Alaska are rich in ethnographic detail but also reveal his thoughts about these cultures. As such, the images are important sources for learning about our own culture's development over time as well as the Native lifestyles.

Collections of Related Interest

Collins, Henry Bascom. [Yupik Eskimo Life, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, c. 1930] 2,000 ft silent b&w film. NA-82.6.1 Human Studies Film Archives/National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Farber, Joseph C., Collection of Photographs of Point Barrow, Alaska. Photo Lot 78-1. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Ford, James Alfred. Papers, 1930-1968. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Hubbard, Bernard, S.J. [Alaskan Footage: King Island, 1937-1938.] 64,700 ft (30 hrs 4 min) silent b&w video. NA-93.1.1 Human Studies Film Archives/National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Nelson, Edward William. Photographs of Alaska / Unalaska Bay / Unalaska Island. Photo Lot 24. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Stanley Brown, Joseph (Photographer). Seals & Sealing Operations (Arctic Aleut). Photo Lot 24 and Lantern Slides, Photo Lot 54, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Tip Top of the Earth: Arctic Alaskan Eskimo Educational Series 1916-1918. 2,827 ft (2 hrs 21 min) silent b&w; film/video. NA 86.5.1. Human Studies Film Archives/National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History also has an extensive collection of drawings by Henry Wood Elliott.

Read More About It

Elliott, Henry Wood. Our Arctic Province. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897 [1886].

Elliott, Henry Wood. The Seal Islands of Alaska. Kingston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1976 [1881].

Moore, Robert J. Native Americans: A Portrait. New York; Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997.

Woodward, Kesler E. Painting in the North. Anchorage: Anchorage Museum oif History and Art, 1993.

Woodward, Kesler E. Spirit of the North: The Art of Eustace Paul Ziegler. Morris Communications Corporation in association with the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and the Morris Museum of art, 1998.



Written by Lisa Morris, designed by Robert Leopold. This article originally appeared in the Arctic Studies Center Newsletter (Number 8, August 2000). Reprinted by permission of the Arctic Studies Center.


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