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Elbridge Burbank

 (1858 - 1949)
Elbridge Ayer Burbank was active/lived in Arizona, California, Illinois.  Elbridge Burbank is known for Indian portrait and still life painting.

Elbridge Burbank

Biography from the Archives of askART

Born in Harvard, Illinois, Elbridge Ayer  (E.A.) Burbank became a portrait painter of Indian chiefs, leaving a rich historical legacy.

He graduated from the Chicago Art Academy and then, working from a studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, painted scenery for Northwest Magazine to inspire homesteading along the railway line of the Northern Pacific.  This job took him West to the Rocky Mountains, Idaho, Washington, and Montana. 

In 1887 and 1889 to 1891, he studied art in Munich, Germany, and there became friends with artists Joseph Henry Sharp, William R. Leigh and Toby Rosenthal.  Following this, he briefly had a portrait studio in London, England, and then he returned to Chicago where in 1892, he had his first exhibition at his studio that he had just opened.  Among the works were portraits including Portrait of a Woman, Munich, 1892 that was positively reviewed by a writer for the Chicago Tribune.  Because the work was formal and characteristic of society portraiture of that era. it is suggested that Burbank was trying to attract portrait commissions.  The sitter was likely the artist's wife, Alice Blanche Wheeler.

In 1894, Burbank became an American citizen, and graduated from the Chicago Art Institute where he was invited to stay and teach.  He spent many summers painting in Giverny, France, the home of Impressionist Claude Monet.  Burbank's Giverny paintings were typical Giverny subjects of women in outdoor landscape.

In 1898, he experienced a great turning point in his life as a result of a special commission from his uncle, Edward Ayer, who was first president of the Field Columbian Museum and owner of one of the most complete libraries on Indian culture.  Ayer hired his nephew to do portraits of Indians prominent in that time.

On this assignment, Burbank traveled west again, and in Ganado, Arizona, met trading post owner Lorenzo Hubbell who became a life-long friend.  During his western trips, he painted over 2000 portraits of Indians from 125 tribes:  1000 were oil portraits and 1200 were with Conte Crayon.  He was one of the few artists to use crayon as a medium for portraits. 

He was the only artist to paint Geronimo from life, and he also painted Red Cloud and Chief Joseph.  The collection of paintings from these western travels in is the Newberry Library in Chicago, and another large group of his paintings is at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

From 1900, he traveled constantly in the West and divided his time between California, Arizona, Oklahoma and New Mexico.  He spent much time at the Hubbell Trading Post, writing in a letter:  "Whenever I am away from Ganado, I always fell I am away from home.  I am happiest there than any place I have yet been to." (Portraits of the People)  It is thought that it was his influence that stirred Hubbell's interest in art, which in turn, led to him forming an art collection that remains at the Trading Post in the Hubbell private home.  Work by Burbank comprises about one-third of the collection.  He also painted numerous Navajo rug designs for Hubbell, who then used them as samples for commissioning rugs to sell. 

For the last eighteen years of his life, he was in mental hospitals, treated for manic depression, and towards the end of his life, lived in the basement of the Manx Hotel in downtown San Francisco where he had moved in 1917.

He died on March 21, 1949 at age 97 from injuries from being hit with a cable car several months earlier.

Submitted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier


Editor, Portraits of the People, Exhibition at the Navajo Nation Museum, August 29 through December 31. 2002.

Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940

Elizabeth Kennedy, Chicago Modern, 1893-1945

Biography from the Archives of askART
Note from Patricia Mallory:
To those who are interested in E. A. Burbank you should check out Indian Trader: The Life and Times of J. L. Hubbell by Martha Blue, published 2000.  She also mentions many other famous painters and writers that visited with Mr. Hubbell in the early 1900's in AZ on the Navajo Indian Reservation.  Better still, if you ever have the opportunity to visit the Hubbell Trading Post (which is now part of the National Parks) don't pass it up.  It is still a working trading post. There are supposedly 175 pieces by E. A. Burbank here with many done using Conte crayons for his 'red heads'.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, I
Elbridge Burbank was a tireless and prolific painter of the North American Indian, who began work in the period after the close of the frontier in the 1890s and continued well into this century.  The Indians Burbank painted nicknamed the artist "Many Brushes," and it is estimated that he worked among as many as 125 tribes, exhibiting more than 1200 works in his lifetime.

He was born and raised in Illinois, and one of his first jobs was to travel along the territory of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the Rockies to the West Coast to paint scenes for a homesteader's magazine.  In 1886, Burbank traveled to Munich to study, where he remained nearly six years and met fellow students Joseph Sharp and William Leigh.

Returning to Chicago, he was commissioned to do a series of portraits of American Indians. Burbank needed little further encouragement, and he soon discovered his life's calling.  He began work at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where his first portrait recorded the aging, yet proud features of the great chief, Geronimo.  In all, Burbank painted seven portraits at various times of the old warrior, and Geronimo is claimed to have stated that he liked the artist more than any other white man he ever met.

After a time spent painting the Apaches, Burbank journeyed to Gallup, New Mexico in search of the Navajo. "The Navajo raise some corn for food, but their wealth is principally in their flocks of sheep, goats, and ponies," Burbank stated. "They are among the wealthiest Indian tribes in the country….Among the Navajos there is a curious division of property," Burbank wrote in his autobiography. "The hogan, the sheep, and the goats belong to the women. The horse saddles and jewelry belong to the men…The Navajo family ties are close.  They are particularly devoted to their children, who learn to ride ponies before they can walk, so that they can follow the flocks along with their elders.  The children help their parents in herding sheep, and sometimes they do all the work themselves. They are good herders."

Resources include:
The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier, Dr. Rick Stewart, Hawthorne Publishing Company, 1986

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
Elbridge Ayer Burbank was born in Harvard, IL in 1858. After studying at the Chicago Art Academy, he received a commission to illustrate Northwest magazine, essentially an advertisement published to encourage homesteading. The traveling entailed in finishing this commission brought Burbank through Montana, Idaho and Washington, and fostered a profound appreciation for the American West in him.

After the completion of the Northwest project, E. A. Burbank went to Munich to study, where he met J.H. Sharp and William R. Leigh, who would remain lifelong friends. As did countless other artists who met Sharp, E. A. Burbank became focused on traveling and painting the Indian people of the Southwest. When he returned from Germany, he was hired by his uncle, Edward Ayer, the first president of the Field Columbian Museum, to paint portraits of the great Indian leaders of the day. Elbridge A. Burbank took on the project and, once completed, did not stop, continuously traveling around the country painting as many Indian subjects as he could.

All told, E. A. Burbank painted over 1200 Indian portraits in his lifetime. His travels put him in contact with some of the prominent figures of the West, including Lorenzo Hubbell, who he counted amongst his better friends, and Geronimo, whose portrait he painted and who is rumored to have said that he liked Burbank better than any other white man he ever met. Today, E. A. Burbank's work can be seen in the collections of the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Smithsonian and the Field Museum. After almost twenty years spent in insane asylums, Elbridge Ayer Burbank died in 1949 of injuries sustained from being struck by a cable car in downtown San Francisco.

Biography from Adobe Gallery
E. A. Burbank (1858-1949) was born in Illinois and attended the Chicago Art Academy and began working as an illustrator for the Northwest magazine of the Northern Pacific Railway, that afforded him the opportunity, for the first time, to see the Rockies, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  He traveled to Germany and, while studying in Munich, met Joseph Henry Sharp and William R. Leigh.

In 1895, he was commissioned to paint portraits of the great Indian leaders of the time. He started in Oklahoma, traveled throughout the West, exhibiting his portraits for the first time in Philadelphia. They created a sensation, and he received great recognition for his work. He continued his constant travels and painting, living for periods in California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Biography from Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Elbridge Ayer Burbank was an American artist who was born in Harvard, Illinois on August 10, 1858.  As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he won many honors and upon graduation he accepted a job with Northwest Magazine.  One of his assignments was to do Western scenes to promote land sales for the Northern Pacific Railway.  Gathering material for this job allowed travel to the Rocky Mountains, Idaho, Montana and Washington.  After several years Burbank resigned and went to Munich, Germany for further art training.  Among his fellow students were future painters of Western subjects Joseph H. Sharp, William R. Leigh and Toby Rosenthal—who became a close friend.  Upon his return from Europe he specialized for a time in painting the African-American children of Chicago.
A great turning point in Burbank's career came through a family connection. His uncle was Edward E. Ayer, who was the first president of the Field Columbian Museum, a trustee of the Newberry Library and the owner of one of the finest private libraries of books on Indian culture in the United States.  Ayer commissioned his nephew to do a series of portraits of Indian chiefs who were prominent at the time. 

Burbank traveled throughout the West, visiting one hundred twenty-eight tribes and painting the leading figures of each.  From Oklahoma he traveled to New Mexico and Arizona painting the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni.  He painted numerous California tribes and later visited the Sioux, Crow, Nez Perce and Ute tribes.  Among those who sat for him were such illustrious personalities as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Rain-in-the-Face. It is fortunate that Elbridge Ayer Burbank painted the famous old chiefs when he did, for not long after, many of them were dead or had adopted the white man's way of dressing.  This trip resulted in approximately twelve hundred works, done in oil, watercolor and conte crayon. 

Burbank was unique in that he was one of the few Western artists to employ crayon as a medium for portraiture; his use of it was highly successful.  Through the use of crayon, he achieved a freshness and power often lacking in the more conventional oil portraits. 

This collection, put together after his travels, is now in the Newberry Library in Chicago.  Many more of his paintings are in the Smithsonian Institution and a fine representation of his crayon portraits of Indians and oils of various subjects are in the collection of Hubbell Trading Post National Historic site.  Burbank left a rich and important historical legacy before his death on March 21, 1949, in San Francisco, California.
Burbank, Elbridge Ayer.  Burbank Among the Indians.  Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd.  1944.
Brody, J.J.  Pueblo Indian Painting:  Tradition and Modernism in New Mexico, 1900-1930.  Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.  1997.
Dawdy, Doris Ostrander.  Artists of the American West:  A Biographical Dictionary.  [1974] 3 vols.  Chicago: Swallow Press.  1985.
Fielding, Mantle.  Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors and Engravers.  [Rev.] Glenn B. Optiz, Ed.  New York: Apollo Book.  1986.
Harmsen, Dorothy.  Harmsen's Western Americana.  Denver, Colorado: Harmsen Publishing Company.  1971.
Hughes, Edan Milton.  Artists in California:  1786-1940.  San Francisco: Hughes Publishing Company.  1986.
Mallett, Daniel Trowbridge.  Mallet's Index of Artists.  New York: Peter Smith.  1948.
Samuels, Peggy & Harold.  The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1976.
Taft, Robert.  Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1850-1900.  New York: Bonanza Books, Crown Publishers, Inc.  1953.
Taylor, Frank J. (ed.)  Burbank Among The Indians.  Caldwell: Coxton Prints. 1944.

Biography from Butler Institute of American Art
The Butler Institute of American Art has approximately 400 works of art by Elbridge Burbank. Almost 200 of them are his oils, and another 200 are the conte drawings. The museum also owns the painting "The Snake Dance" as well as images of Geronimo in both Native American garb as well as in a soldier's uniform.

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About  Elbridge Burbank

Born:  1858 - Harvard, Illinois
Died:   1949 - San Francisco, California
Known for:  Indian portrait and still life painting

Essays referring to
Elbridge Burbank

Painters of Grand Canyon
Taos pre-1940