A treasured artwork is on view again in the Museum. One of the signature works in the New-York Historical collection, Gayë́twahgeh is a striking oil-on-canvas portrait by F. Bartoli of the famed Seneca chief—who was also known as Cornplanter—that was painted in 1796. It is thought to commemorate his 1786 meeting with the U.S. Congress in New York, which signaled the establishment of temporarily peaceful relations with the young United States. The portrait is on view now in Dexter Hall as part of Dreaming Together, an exhibition that interweaves works from the New-York Historical Society and Asia Society Museum.
Gayë́twahgeh came to New-York Historical in 1867 as part of the collection of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, one of the major art collectors of the 19th century. It’s become a familiar image to frequent New-York Historical visitors, appearing in several exhibitions over the years and more recently, even serving as a reminder to mask up during COVID-19 times. But in truth, we know very little about the painting—the artist, for instance, is a complete mystery, even down to their full first name. The painting was known as Cornplanter for decades until a recent movement by Dreaming Together‘s curator Wendy N.E. Ikemoto to reassert Gayë́twahgeh’s proper Indigenous name.
Most of what we do know about the work is from the time period of its creation and a close read of the details in the painting itself. It’s on display as part of the “People” section of Dreaming Together and grouped most immediately with Jay Yao’s 2013 photograph Untitled (St. Mary Magdalene Church, Kawit, Cavite) and Louise Lyons Heustis’ 1899 portrait of Annie R. Tinker. The exhibition makes a close study of the clothes Gayë́twahgeh wears in the portrait, a hybrid style that includes Indigenous elements as well as Euro-American ones, like the blanket that’s been adapted to an Indigenous style or the peace metal around his neck that evokes both medieval armor and Indigenous shell necklaces. The look is reflective of a time period and a moment in early American history that was surprisingly international, when Indigenous tribes were courted by various vying political powers, including the young United States. This is reflected in Gayë́twahgeh’s life story: the son of a Dutch fur trader and an Indigenous mother, he led the Seneca on the side of the British in the Revolutionary War before pushing for diplomacy with the new nation. “This is an Indigenous America that was part of an international world,” says Ikemoto. “North America at this time was not incipiently American, nor was it British—it was multinational. The territory was grounds for all of these competing powers, which included the Indigenous powers and the Indigenous nations.”
For all the power and the heroism the portrait evokes, the later years of Gayë́twahgeh’s life were marked by a familiar history of disillusionment and loss. Stung by the betrayals of the American government, he reportedly withdrew from the white world. In the 1790s, he was granted a tract of land in northwestern Pennsylvania as reward for his support of the new United States. (He died there in 1836.) The Cornplanter Grant or Tract, as it was known, became a center of Seneca life and culture for generations. But in the 1960s, it fell victim to another broken promise when large portions of the land were flooded for the creation of the Kinzua Dam.
Top image: Dreaming Together in Dexter Hall (Glenn Castellano)