Ask anyone the world over to identify a figure in buckskins with a feather bonnet, and the answer will be “Indian.” Many works of art produced by non-Native artists have reflected such a limited viewpoint. In American Indians in British Art, 1700–1840, Stephanie Pratt explores for the first time an artistic tradition that avoided simplification and that instead portrayed Native peoples in a surprisingly complex light.
During the eighteenth century, the British allied themselves with Indian tribes to counter the American colonial rebellion. In response, British artists produced a large volume of work focusing on American Indians. Although these works depicted their subjects as either noble or ignoble savages, they also represented Indians as active participants in contemporary society.
Pratt places artistic works in historical context and traces a movement away from abstraction, where Indians were symbols rather than actual people, to representational art, which portrayed Indians as actors on the colonial stage. But Pratt also argues that to view these images as mere illustrations of historical events or individuals would be reductive. As works of art they contain formal characteristics and ideological content that diminish their documentary value.