Silver Horn's Unique Watercolors in the Ayer Collection

The artist Elbridge Ayer Burbank traveled to Indian reservations in the late nineteenth century to paint the portraits of Indigenous peoples. He did so at the request of his uncle, Edward E. Ayer, the business magnate and collector of Americana.

Burbank traveled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, on three occasions; it was there that the Kiowa artist Silver Horn (Hawgone) sat for him for at least two portraits.

Silver Horn had been an established artist among the Kiowa since the 1880s. In 1899, he became interested in Burbank’s “naturalist” technique, and he observed the American artist as he painted other subjects. Encouraged by Silver Horn’s interest in his portraits, Burbank gave him a few lessons and, upon returning to Chicago, sent watercolors and unlined paper to Fort Sill—where the materials would have been difficult to acquire.

Burbank sought out Indigenous artists in order to purchase “traditional” art from them. Impressed by Silver Horn’s artistic abilities, Burbank purchased a buckskin and asked Silver Horn to illustrate it for him. He wrote to his Uncle Edward, "I bought also another piece of whole buckskin, and ‘Hawgone,’ the Kiowa artist, is at work on it, he is to paint on it a history of the Kiowa tribes, all the different kinds of tepees the Kiowa use, etc. and I have a good notion to order one for you as I am afraid if I don't, you will get mine anyway."

With Burbank, Silver Horn studied the art of modeling faces and individual portraiture. He experimented with this style in a series of individual portraits of people and animals, most of which he sold to Edward E. Ayer, before abandoning the style in favor of work that was more stylistically Kiowa.

The 123 pieces by Silver Horn in the Newberry’s Ayer Collection demonstrate that his experimentation took him away from narratives about community to work that featured individuals. This makes the body of work held in the collection stylistically distinct from both the earlier and later periods of Silver Horn's work.

By Seonaid Valiant, Ayer Reference Librarian


Letter from Elbridge Ayer Burbank to Edward Elbridge Ayer, April 18, 1899. In the E.A. Burbank Papers at the Newberry.

Burbank among the Indians by E.A. Burbank as Told by Ernest Royce.

Robert G. Donnelly, Transforming Images : The Art of Silver Horn and His Successors.