Friday, July 26, 2013

Planning the Final Composition

While the glue sizing is drying on the canvas, I've made some new sketches and adjustments to the composition. The coloring ended up a little on the yellow side. I found a lot of good ideas in the exhibition catalog from the Iroquois exhibition in Bonn that I obtained through the Interlibrary Loan service at Siena's Standish Library. I only have the book for a short time, so I've been trying to make good use of it. In the book there are great reproductions of period drawings and commemorative portraits by the English Court painter Johannes Verelst. It was from his paintings of the Four Mohawk Kings that I had the idea to place a turtle near St. Kateri's feet. This helps to reinforce her identity as Mohawk, and as a member of the Turtle Clan. 

I'm also forming a much better understanding of the Haudenosaunee dress during the late 17th century. The pencil sketch shows a patterned border and beadwork characteristic of the Mohawk.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Canvas

My materials are in and I've started to prepare the canvas for painting. The first step is to give it a preliminary stretch and allow the fibers to adjust to the frame. I've loosely tacked it to a stretcher. It will get two coats of a diluted glue (or sizing, in the technical jargon) before I apply the ground (a white, semi absorbent oil-based coating that supports the paint film). The sizing serves to seal the canvas and prevent oil in the ground and paint from seeping into the canvas fibers. Traditionally this was done with a glue of animal origin. Isinglass from the swim bladders of russian sturgeons, or natural gelatin from rabbit skins are two of the more common variants of historical glues. Many painters today still use these glues. I prefer a polyvinyl acrylic adhesive (PVA) for my canvasses. PVA glue has largely replaced the animal hide glues for conservators around the globe. It has the advantage of being ph neutral, non-yellowing, and less hygroscopic than other glues, yet it remains totally reversible. This would allow an experienced conservator the ability to separate the paint film from the canvas, should anything happen to the canvas. Kind of a terrifying thought, but it's reassuring to know that the painting could be preserved even if the canvas was damaged by moisture, mold, or insects. A great read about adventures in art conservation is Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Visual Research

A difficulty with reconstructing late 17th century Mohawk dress is the lack of a direct documentary instrument like photography. Many explorers made sketches which were later published as etchings or engravings. We also have the written testimony of travelers, especially the Jesuits. St. Kateri's early biographers, were creating hagiography, not a descriptive narrative, so their descriptions of her are minimal. From the writings of the Jesuits, we know that once she reached the Kahnewake communities she eschewed the ornamentation and jewelry favored by many other your women (See Bonaparte in the Bibliography). But we also know that she was a skilled and valued artist. Indeed her work was so esteemed as to adorn ceremonial wampum belts.

We also know that her poor eyesight and facial scars often compelled her to wear a hood or a shawl that could be draped above her head when in bright sunlight. This hood, rather than being conceived as an ancient version of a contemporary coat hood, was probably little more than a blanket, large enough to be draped over the head.

In reflecting on this I have begun to devise a more detailed plan for the clothing, and for describing her attire in paint. In this revised sketch, I've altered the cut of the dress to reflect the description of 17th century Iroquois dress in Dean R. Snow's The Iroquois. To guide my hand I've been comparing this description to etchings made from Champlain's Voyages de la Nouvelle France, published in the 1640. To get an idea of the ways in which the Iroquois embellished the imported fabric, I've been looking at the paintings of Verelst, who in 1710 created four portraits to commemorate the arrival of Iroquois delegates at the court of Queen Anne.

In this pencil sketch I'm considering a different arrangement of the leggings, skirt, overblouse and blanket. I've draped the blanket over her head, in a way that she is known to have worn it. I'm not committed to that yet, but it's important to me that I can visualize it before ruling it out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Traditional Dress

© St Luke's Stuio, Vermillion, Alberta
An evolving concern for the portraits is the dress. The Mohawk and other communities would have had trading contact with the French and Dutch since the early 1600s. Broadcloth of European origin quickly replaced the animal hides that had, up to that point, been used to create most components of dress. Scholars struggle to identify the nature of Iroquois clothing prior to the establishment of European trading relationships. St. Kateri lived during a time with trade with the Dutch and French was commonplace, so we can make a fairly accurate guess that she would have been dressed in garments tailored by her community from European fabric. Scholars disagree about the Haudenosaunee clothing prior to European contact.

Many portraits, including the above icon produced by the St. Luke Studio of Alberta, depict St. Kateri in what is known as a Trade Shirt. These garments, tailored in Europe, were often bartered with the Iroquois by French and Dutch traders. The Mohawk of St. Kateri's community would often embellish these garments with beadwork and dye.

I spent some time down at the NY State Museum this week with an Enthngorapher discussing Mohawk and Haudenosaunee dress in the late 17th century. It was a very exciting trip and I'll be publishing some new sketches next week. I was able to look through the Arthur Parker Photo Archive and examine a few rare books. Unfortunately many of the material artifacts in their collection are out on loan for the Auf Den Spuren Der Irokesen exhibition in Bonn. Very few copies of the English edition were printed... WorldCat only lists 7 in North American collections, none of which appear to be circulating...

... It took me a while, but I've finally found an english language copy of the catalog. Wondering if I should splurge and buy a copy?

Monday, July 15, 2013


Alan Greer, writing in his Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, about the portrait of St. Kateri that emerges from Claude Chauchetiere's biography, speaks of authenticity: "It was a full-scale vita sanctorum dedicated to a woman who remained to the end Mohawk in her appearance, her language, and her way of life."

The authenticity of language and a literary text, being abstractions, is different than a painting. Because we take so much of our visual culture for granted, it is easy to end up composing with anachronisms and cultural irregularities. At one time in history convention dictated that figures in a painting must wear togas. Indeed, Benjamin West, an early American artist famously broke with this convention in his The Death of General Wolf. The scandal that resulted from Mr. West depicting soldiers in their typical attire seems surprising today. Yet even today much of our visual culture is based more upon convention and tradition than an understanding of culture and history. We're just too close to see it.

© Howard Terpning
A more recent example artist known for the authenticity of his paintings, and the lengths to which he has gone to achieve that dimension of realism, is Howard Terpning. My grandfather knew him when they were both working in Los Angeles. Mr. Terpning is perhaps most widely known for his illustrations which appeared on the movie posters for Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music. But his greatest accomplishments have been in his paintings of Native Americans.

I admire Mr. Terpning as much for the quality of his paintings, as I do for his diligence as a scholar. He goes to great lengths to be sure that his paintings of the Blackfoot, Cree, and Shoshone are an accurate testimony to the visual culture and traditional practices of the tribe. There are few artists who are willing to assemble their own collections of the artwork and craftwork of many different tribes, and to trek into remote areas to sketch the natural landscape. Mr. Terpning was known, even in his 70's, to mount extensive expeditions into the Colorado backcountry in order to capture that extra element that differentiates representation and authenticity. The student of painting can learn much from his brushwork: the evidences of dexterous maneuvers between expressive passion and a graceful elegance. The student of history could learn from his rigorous methodology.

His work is an inspiration to me. I hope to accomplish something similar in the portraits I will soon begin. I want to depict St. Kateri not only as a Christian and a Saint, but as Mohawk.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Preliminary Sketch


This week I've begun a new commission on behalf of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish of Schenectady New York. Over the next few months I'll be creating two original paintings of St. Kateri. The sketch below was selected by the search committee to eventually hang in the Parish's church on Rosa Road. This is the first painting I'll be working on. I hope to use this forum to document my progress on the paintings. Consider this an open door into my studio. Look for more information and images over the weeks ahead as I study the life and times of St. Kateri, create preliminary studies, and make the paintings.

Scott Nelson Foster