Elbridge Ayer Burbank was a tireless and prolific painter of the North American Indian, who began work in the period after the close of the frontier in the 1890’s and continued well into this century. Those he painted nicknamed him “Many Brushes,” and it is estimated that he worked among as many as 125 tribes, exhibiting more than 1200 works in his lifetime.
Burbank was born and raised in Harvard, Illinois, and after graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago, one of his first jobs was to travel along the territory of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the Rockies to the West Coast painting scenes for a homesteader’s magazine. In 1886, Burbank traveled to Munich to study, where he remained nearly six years and met fellow students Joseph Sharp and William Leigh. Returning to Chicago, he was commissioned by his uncle to do a series of portraits of American Indians. Burbank needed little further encouragement, and he soon discovered his life’s calling. He began work at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where his first portrait recorded the aging, yet proud features of the great chief, Geronimo. He was the only artist to paint the great chief from life. In all, Burbank painted seven portraits at various times of the old warrior, and it is claimed that Geronimo stated that he liked the artist more than any other white man he ever met.
After a time spent painting the Apaches, Burbank journeyed to Gallup, New Mexico in search of the Navajo. “The Navajo raise some corn for food, but their wealth is principally in their flocks of sheep, goats, and ponies,” Burbank stated, displaying his interest and knowledge of those he portrayed. “They are among the wealthiest Indian tribes in the country…among the Navajos there is a curious division of property. The hogan, the sheep, and the goats belong to the women. The horse saddles and jewelry belong to the men…The Navajo family ties are close. They are particularly devoted to their children, who learn to ride ponies before they can walk, so that they can follow the flocks along with their elders. The children help their parents in herding sheep, and sometimes they do all the work themselves. They are good herders.”
From 1900 on, Burbank traveled constantly in the West and divided his time between California, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico. For the last eighteen years of his life, he was in mental hospitals and lived in the basement of the Manx Hotel in downtown San Francisco. In 1949, he died from injuries from being hit with a cable car. The collection of paintings from Burbank’s travels is the Newberry Library in Chicago, and another large group of his paintings is at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
Reference: The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, edited by Dr. Rick Stewart, AskArt.com