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The four Indian Kings: The many modes of remembrance.

The centuries since first contact with Europeans have been unhappy ones for the native inhabitants of North America, to say the least. Gradually the encroachment of white settlers pushed them from their traditional lands, while warfare and new diseases decimated their populations, leaving them more and more marginalized in their own country. But in the early years of European settlement, the First Nations were extremely important to the newcomers -- both as allies and as foes -- and this selection of portraits from the new National Portrait Gallery of Canada provides a fascinating window into this time.


IN 1710, many layers of memory animated these portraits, only the first having generally survived to animate our own intuitions: that they are souvenirs of particular, recognizable individuals, positioning them in time and known events, and that they are a documentation intended not only to preserve the memory for those who were there but, like all deliberately selected archives, for future remembering of the "memorable," even by those (such as ourselves) with no personal recollection of the people or the events.

But portraits also reflected man's form "which is not made after the image of God to resemble the wilde beasts in following of their lusts, but that the memory of his originall should lift up his noble soul to the love of a vertuous desire of glory" (1)

Hence, portraits, particularly of the high-born, were typically seen to serve as an incitement to the viewer to attempt "everlasting fame" through virtue. But what could be the virtue of these strange ambassadors from North America? What examples did they set, or what lessons could they teach that were worth remembering or imitating?

Despite exotic costume details and body scarification, the artist Jan Verelst rendered these men according to a classical formula, making them generalized emblems or symbols of rank, virtually sculptural and toga-clad. Exoticism was rendered familiar through recognizable (remembered and imitated) poses and modes of commemorating status and meaning within an admired, orderly, socialized world. Their mode of presentation was an affirmation of authority -- the authority of classical tradition; the authority of the commissioner of the portraits, Queen Anne. They, and therefore their world and their place in the white world, was controlled, understandable, hence not threatening.

Contrarily, but operating equally as a defining and controlling mechanism, their portraits also engendered the recall of what separated the Old World from the New; that is, the civilizing effect of the Arts and Sciences as opposed to the primitiveness of the unschooled. This was exposed as prevailing opinion by Ephraim Chambers in 1728 in the dedication of his famous Cyclopoaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences to King George II, where he wrote that, due to the Arts and Sciences,

...the mind is reclaim'd from its native Wildness, and enrich'd with Sentiments which lead to Virtue and Glory. 'Tis these, in fine, that make the Difference between your Majesty's Subjects and the Savages of Canada or the Cape of Good Hope. (2)

European prejudice was cast as recalling to mind a pre-existing truth about the primitives, not as the active fantasizing of new stereotypes; the little background scenes where the weapons of the four kings are wielded in action may be absorbed as narrative -- remembered story -- rather than merely rhetorical demonstration, and their totemic animals link them more to Junius' "wilde beasts" than the form of God.

To incite these very types of comparison was an act of remembering which was among Joseph Addison's Secondary Pleasures of the Imagination, as he defined them in 1712 in The Spectator: ...this secondary pleasure of the imagination proceeds from that action of the mind which compares the ideas arising from the original objects with the ideas we receive from the statue, picture, description, or sound, that represents them.... The final cause, probably of annexing pleasure to this operation of the mind, was to quicken and encourage us in our searches after truth ... (3)

The portraits also carried a hidden comparison, an implicit and political agenda beyond a contrast between the Old and New Worlds into the expression of a continuing duel in the Old World. They compared the primitive "rudeness" and youthful national vigour of England, sensed by Chambers to be on the cusp of a new global greatness, with the implicit over-refinement of French civilisation. After all, the four kings had come to have their support secured by the English in fighting against the French in the New World (and to request missionaries). Revealingly, changing English taste, as Addison expressed it when preferring "a tree in all its luxuriency ... than when ... trimmed into a mathematical figure," (4) was about to reject the imported cultivated garden or parterre for the image of a new apparent wilderness.

HERE we end with the typical twinning of savagery and nobility in the modal reaction of the English to Natives, a concurrent identification with their imagined virtues as well as a repugnance of their imagined savagery. Like a kaleidoscope, the portraits realign their commemorative meanings with their shifting locations in the painted imaginary.


(1.) Franciscus Junius, The Painting of the Ancients, 1638, in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood and Jason Gaiger, eds., Art in Theory, 1648-1815, An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 19.

(2.) In Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, p. 342.

(3.) In Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, p. 388. The primary pleasure of the imagination was derived from observing the "outward objects" themselves.

(4.) In Harrison, Wood, and Gaiger, p. 387.

LILLY KOLTUN received her PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and is acting director of the newly created Portrait Gallery of Canada (, an affiliate of the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa.
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Author:Koltun, Lilly
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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