Elbridge Ayer Burbank was an American artist who sketched and painted more than 1200 portraits of Native Americans from 125 tribes. Harvard-educated he decided to pursue his passion for painting the American Indian and made it his life goal to paint Indian portraits. His claim to fame is that he’s the only artist who ever painted Geronimo from life.
Burbank journeyed from camp to camp in northwest and southwest, painting successively all the great warriors whose prowess has made their names famous in frontier history.
He is quoted as saying:
Am so glad I am not cooped up in a studio in Chicago, half my time teaching. I believe I’d rather be with the Indians than white people as I have more fun with them and get along so nice with them.”
Burbank painted sitting portraits of the greatest Native American leaders, including Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Chief Joseph. At the time, Chief Blue Horse was eighty years of age and rode each day on his horse to pose for Burbank, who he called “Son of the Shadow-Maker.” Burbank was also an historian and his fond recollections illuminate Chief Blue Horse. “Hardly a day passed without Blue Horse coming to my studio to visit me. He would sit down and smoke a little, short, strong pipe and gossip with the other Indians present; all the time he was talking he would be fanning himself with the wing of a turkey. His face usually was painted red, and he wore all the Indian clothes he had, with a single feather on his head. He was a thorough Indian, and extremely kind-hearted. His principal object in life was to try to make others happy around him.”
Burbank was dedicated to documenting Indians life. However his own life was not so easy. He suffered with and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, referred to then as “manic depression”. He was treated at several different facilities during his life, most notably for more than ten years at the State Mental Hospital in Napa, California.
In 1949 he was struck down by a cable car and died two months later on April 21st at the age of 91.
Through his work he has created a lasting legacy of the American Indian.