The Met's Great Hall is an imposing space that endows art exhibited there with a conspicuous aura of cultural authority and achievement. This grand stage, which welcomes over six million visitors from around the world annually, has featured a wide range of art across time and from around the world, including Precolumbian sculpture, nineteenth-century American sculpture, European tapestries, and on rare occasion, contemporary works, by artists such as Andy Warhol and John Baldessari. It is currently home to two monumental ancient sculptures on loan to the Museum: a Middle Kingdom statue of an Egyptian pharaoh, possibly King Amenemhat II (ca. 1919–1878 B.C.), and a Hellenistic sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena (ca. 170 B.C.).
This impressive ancient pair is now joined by two new large paintings by the artist Kent Monkman that offer a sweeping rumination on the lives, experiences, and fates of Indigenous North American cultures. Titled mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People), the inaugural Great Hall Commission marks the latest in a new series of contemporary art commissions at The Met. Monkman's paintings highlight the Museum as both a byproduct and beneficiary of colonizing forces, and illuminate how encyclopedic art museums perpetuate settler perspectives of history. In this regard, his commission is part of a larger institutional reconsideration of the Museum's responsibility to attend more vigorously to new and broader perspectives on history and culture, as they relate to our wide-ranging collection.
Monkman, who is Cree, is one of North America's leading Indigenous artists. He first trained as an abstract painter, but after learning about his family's history in Canadian government-sponsored religious schools, which forced Indigenous children to assimilate into Euro-Canadian culture, he committed instead to reinserting First Peoples' histories and experiences into the predominant narratives of Western culture. He does this by appropriating images, motifs, and techniques from art history, particularly the authoritative language of a broad category of art called history painting. Emanuel Leutze's famous Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) is an excellent example of history painting, and plays a key role in this project. Monkman's paintings, installations, and performances challenge art history's colonial narratives and provoke public institutions, especially museums, into acknowledging and representing Indigenous perspectives and voices in accounts of our shared history.
For The Met, Monkman has conceived and executed two related monumental paintings, Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People. The commission's primary title, mistikôsiwak, derives from a Cree word meaning "wooden boat people." It originally applied to French settlers, but Monkman uses it to refer to all the Europeans who colonized the so-called "New World." The left painting of the diptych, Welcoming the Newcomers, dramatically recreates their arrival, as they brought with them institutions of religion and slavery. The Native inhabitants display a range of responses toward the newcomers. Resurgence of the People, the second painting, is a testament to, and celebration of, Indigenous resiliency over time, particularly in the face of pernicious and persistent colonizing forces, both political and cultural.
Prominent in both paintings is the larger-than-life figure of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman's shape-shifting, time-traveling alter ego. Miss Chief, whose name plays on the words "mischief" and "egotistical," is in part an embodiment of the Indigenous Two Spirit tradition, which embraces a third gender and nonbinary sexuality, and runs contrary to constructions of gender and sexuality imposed by European settlers. Miss Chief also refers to the Cree trickster figure, who subverts conventional beliefs and wisdom in traditional stories but also often protects and affirms life (as Miss Chief does here in both instances).
Welcoming the Newcomers and Resurgence of the People teem with identifiable references to European and North American paintings and sculptures in The Met collection. For instance, viewers may spot subtle nods to European Old Masters Titian and Peter Paul Rubens, and their depictions of the Greco-Roman story of Venus and Adonis. But Monkman's paintings are particularly poignant in their references to works by Euro-American artists who depicted Indigenous subjects, especially those that perpetuate the myth of the "vanishing race" by presenting Native cultures as noble and in a state of gradual and inevitable extinction.
The commentary that follows highlights a few in the works in The Met collection that Monkman references in his two paintings, and explains reasons why the artist was drawn to them.
Titian and Rubens's Paintings of Venus and Adonis
Welcoming the Newcomers involves interrelated themes of hunting and trapping, activities that drove the North American beaver-pelt trade and launched an international Indigenous-European economy. Hunting also plays a key role in the classical story of the fateful affair between the goddess Venus and the mortal Adonis. Derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the subject has been popular among many Western artists throughout time, including the Italian painter Titian and Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. Titian based his painting of Venus and Adonis in The Met collection on Ovid's epic poem, and Rubens responded to Titian's work with his own variation on the story. Both depictions show Venus trying in vain to prevent Adonis from leaving on a hunt; he is eventually killed by a boar.
Near the left of the composition, Monkman reinterprets Rubens's Adonis as a European fur trapper, who is accompanied at his side by a beaver (instead of Cupid) as a symbol of this linchpin of Indigenous-European trade. In the role of "Venus," the artist casts Hayne Hudijhini, the wife of Shaumonekusse (an Oto [Sioux] chief), who appears in a portrait by American painter Henry Inman in the Museum's American Wing. Tragically, like many Indigenous people, Hudijhini died in 1821 from measles, a disease that accompanied European colonization; in Monkman's depiction she is covered in the disease's characteristic rash. Monkman recreates Titian's Venus and Adonis near the center of his painting, with the muscular mortal appearing as the likeness of Pes-Ke-Le-Cha-Co, also derived from a portrait by Inman. Pes-Ke-Le-Cha-Co was a Pawnee delegate at meetings with President Monroe in 1821 intended to promote the military and economic might of the United States and to intimidate the delegation.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Hiawatha
The contemplative male figure on the left side of Welcoming the Newcomers relates to this sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens based his depiction on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855). As in many nineteenth-century literary representations of Indigenous people, Longfellow's poem presents his characters through a Romantic lens and promotes many historical inaccuracies. For one, Longfellow mistakenly believed that Hiawatha was another name for the Anishinaabe trickster figure, Nanabozho. In fact, the author's titular character is completely detached from the historical Hiawatha, cofounder of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
Like Longfellow's poem, Saint-Gaudens's sculpture extends the Western tradition of idealizing and romanticizing Indigenous cultures and historical figures in art, with little or no concern for truth or fact. The sculptor executed Hiawatha while living and working in Italy, which is one key reason why his muscular marble figure looks so much like an ancient Roman sculpture. Thus, Saint-Gaudens's work epitomizes an Indigenous subject as represented entirely from a European perspective and with a non-Indigenous artistic vocabulary.
Thomas Crawford, Mexican Girl Dying
Like Delacroix's The Natchez, Thomas Crawford's Mexican Girl Dying extends the injurious myth of the "vanishing race." Crawford was compelled to sculpt this subject after reading William H. Prescott's The History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). Prescott's account purported the view that Spain conquered Mexico in the interest of spreading Christianity. The young Indigenous woman in Crawford's sculpture holds a cross, indicating that she had accepted Christianity and been "saved" before her death at the hands of the Spanish.
Crawford's sculpture is one of so many works of art that depict Indigenous people through a distorted Romantic lens, portraying them and their cultures as doomed. She is an anonymous idealized type, without particular, individualizing details. Moreover, her feathered headdress and skirt reflect nineteenth-century European fantasies regarding Mexican Indigenous peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest, not historical truth. Like Saint-Gaudens's Hiawatha, Crawford's smoothly carved and volumetric marble extends the classical tradition of European and American sculpture, with roots back to ancient Greece and Rome. In Welcoming the Newcomers, her sensual pose suggests that she is not only very much alive but also in a state of ecstasy or physical pleasure.
Eugène Delacroix, The Natchez
Monkman incorporates and subverts multiple artistic representations of the European conceit of the so-called "vanishing race," including this painting by French artist Eugène Delacroix. Delacroix had probably never met a North American Indigenous person before he created this work, which he based on François-René de Chateaubriand's novella Atala (1801). Chateaubriand's story romanticizes the supposed fall of Indigenous people after the Natchez were removed from their ancestral lands in the southwestern portion of present-day Mississippi in the wake of French military incursions in 1730. Delacroix's composition depicts a Natchez family, which the novella claims is the last of their kind. In the story, the newborn baby died shortly after birth, because his mother's milk was tainted by the grief of losing her people.
The perception that Indigenous people were fated to become extinct was a myth perpetuated by many artists of the time, and the Natchez people and their culture continue to survive today. The image of a young Indigenous family appears in both of Monkman's paintings—in Resurgence of the People, the parents are a same-sex couple—to emphasize Indigenous resilience, survival, and openness to many expressions of sexuality and gender. His work emphasizes the similarities between Delacroix's Natchez family and traditional depictions of the Christian Holy Family and Nativity scenes to evoke the devastating impact Christianity had on Indigenous cultures.
Gustave Courbet, The Woman in the Waves
In Welcoming the Newcomers, Monkman appropriates this female nude by Gustave Courbet to allude to the 770 French women who were sponsored by King Louis XIV between 1667 and 1672 to immigrate to New France, marry male settlers, and populate the colony with white French people. Many of the filles du roi ("King's girls"), as they were known, were orphans from poor backgrounds, and several had been inmates in squalid charity prisons in Paris; these women later acquired a general reputation for being prostitutes, a claim that modern scholars dispute. The campaign was a tremendous success for French colonialism: two-thirds of French Canadians today claim descent from a fille du roi.
Courbet was known for depicting female nudes in a style that was less idealized and more realistic than many other artists who preceded him and even most of his contemporaries. For instance, he often depicted such intimate details as pubic hair, which most other painters and sculptors would omit. The female figure in The Met's painting has hair under her arms, and unflinching particulars of this sort prompted criticisms in the artist's lifetime that his work was ugly and vulgar. Nevertheless, the painting exemplifies the voyeuristic male gaze and exhibits a pose typical of classicizing European art.
Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware
A major touchstone for Resurgence of the People is Emanuel Leutze's famous and popular painting Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), an iconic image of the first president of the United States, beloved by many Americans. Monkman's reinterpretation of this grand work substitutes Leutze's figures for Indigenous people, who pilot a boat with canoe paddles through rising waters and struggle to rescue desperate refugees. In stark contrast to Washington's exclusively male crew, over half the paddlers in Monkman's painting are women, and many are dressed in a range of traditional and contemporary styles that honor and show pride in their heritage. The paddlers' powerful steering indicates that Indigenous people and traditions can and will guide the way forward in uncertain times toward a better future.
Occupying the heroic position near the top-center of the composition, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle has dramatically and symbolically replaced Washington, who remains a controversial figure among Indigenous people and African Americans, due to his role as an assimilationist and slaveholder. In doing so, she challenges American mythologies and reclaims the resurgent spirit of Indigenous peoples.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on April 5, 2021, to correct the tensing used to refer to Two Spirit people.