SPLENDID SCENE OF ICONIC WITCHCRAFT TRIAL
Chromolithograph. 25 3/4 x 38 1/2 inches sheet.
This climactic work, based on the composition by J. M. Stanley, shows chief Red Jacket (1758-1830), the well-known leader of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois Nation, on trial for charges of witchcraft. This famous trial is supposed to have taken place around the year 1800. The present work shows a pivotal moment in the trial’s proceedings, which take place in a forest setting. Being the great orator that he is, Red Jacket appears here to be making an impassioned speech in defense of himself. The Iroquois tribesmen who surround the chief wear tense expressions as they watch him speak. Visible under the chief’s white robe is the red jacket given to him by a British officer for his help as a messenger during the American Revolution.
Notably, there are also two white men among the circle of Native American auditors of the trial. One is the painter Stanley, who imaginatively inserts himself in the scene, though in fact he wasn’t born until 14 years after the trial supposedly took place. The other is the Reverend Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian missionary to the Iroquois. The Reverend’s appearance in the picture may be Stanley’s reference to Red Jacket’s most famous speech, "Religion for the White Man and the Red" (1805), in which he powerfully called for religious tolerance for Native American spiritual beliefs.
John Mix Stanley grew up in Buffalo, New York and trained as a portrait painter. In 1842, he traveled to the American West to paint the life of Native American tribes. In 1852, he mounted a significant exhibit of more than 150 works at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1854, he exhibited a 42-part panorama of Western scenes at major cities in America, including New York and D.C. Over 200 of his paintings, maps, and other works being stored at the Smithsonian were destroyed during an 1865 fire. Today his few surviving works are exhibited by national and regional museums in the US. He painted the present work many decades after the supposed event.
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