Editor's note: The following article, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on August 4, 2003 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the Nebraska State Historical Society. The article was previously published in Nebraska History Volume 57, No. 2 (Summer 1976), pp. 143-199. Images accompanying the text in the Nebraska State Historical Society publication were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the NH issue containing the article, please contact the Nebraska State Historical Society directly through either this phone number or web address:


Angel DeCora: American Artist and Educator

by Sarah McAnulty


Angel DeCora does not fit the stereotyped image of an Indian artist. She was not a beadworker living on the Plains of the United States rendering repetitive, geometric designs onto animal-hide backgrounds, nor was she for most of her life a reservation Indian "discovered" to have artistic talent by a kindly white trader. She was separated from her family and tribal artistic heritages at an early age and educated by white men to become a successful member of the dominant society. She adopted western media for her work as an artist but retained subject matter which was considered "Indian." This combination of elements in her work caused a tension which is evident both in many of her pieces and in her attitude toward her profession.

Angel DeCora was born in a wigwam on the Winnebago reservation in Dakota (today Thurston) County, Nebraska, on May 3, 1871. She was by ancestry part Winnebago Indian and part French. Her Indian name was Hinook-Mahiwi-Kilinaka which means alternatively "Fleecy Cloud Floating in Place" or "Woman Coming on the Clouds in Glory" and roughly translates into the English "Angel." Throughout her career she often signed her art work "Angel DeCora."

The DeCora family was of some note among the Winnebago. Angel's grandfather, chief of the Winnebago, was known as Little DeCora among whites and was friendly with the white settlers. When a government attempt to allot Minnesota land to the Winnebago was disrupted by a Sioux outbreak in 1862, he restrained his tribesmen from joining in the upheaval. Later, part of the tribe was removed from Wisconsin and Minnesota, first to South Dakota and finally to Nebraska. Little DeCora was a leader of the Nebraska segment and remained so until his death at the age of 90 in 1887.

David (Tall) DeCora was Angel's father and the fourth son of Little DeCora. He died in July of 1888, never having achieved the leading role in the tribe that was his by birthright. Her mother was a member of the LaMere family, also prominent among the Winnebago, and had been educated at a convent. After the death of both her parents in the late 1880's, Angel was watched over by her uncle who was a LaMere. Because of her family's prominence and education, Angel DeCora's inheritance was more complex than that of many Indian children.

Angel DeCora had a younger sister, Julia DeCora Lukehart, who, like Angel, attended the Hampton Institute in Virginia. She was a source for information on the DeCora family collected by Thomas Hughes in 1927 for his publication, Indian Chiefs of Southern Minnesota: Containing Sketches of the Prominent Chieftains of the Dakota and Winnebago Tribes from 1825 to 1865.[1]

Oliver LaMere, Angel DeCora's cousin, wrote several books and articles concerning Winnebago mythology and legends, including Winnebago Stories published in 1928. His article, "Winnebago Legends - the Thunder, the Eagle, and War Clans," was published in The Wisconsin Archaeologist of 1922. During his career he was an interpreter, a Winnebago tribal councilman, and vice president of the Grand Council of North American Indians. He was also a member of the Society of American Indians, as was Angel, and came to know and admire her in that context. On the occasion of her death in 1919, he prepared a memorial calendar in her honor.

At the time of Angel DeCora's birth, some of the Winnebago were being resettled in unfamiliar territory; for this reason she may have observed only a few of the older crafts or traditional ceremonies during her childhood. She may have witnessed some of the "old ways," for she wrote of a traditional dance ceremony in "Grey Wolf's Daughter," a story published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1899.[2] She also wrote of a healing or medicine ceremony in the story "The Sick Child," also published in an 1899 issue of Harper's.[3] In a brief autobiography published in the Carlisle Indian School journal, The Red Man, she described herself as "a well-counseled Indian child, rather reserved, respectful and mild in manner."[4]

She was enrolled in a reservation school in November, 1883, when Julia St. Cyr, an older Winnebago acting as agent for the Hampton Institute in Virginia, convinced her parents to allow her to go East to the Institute. At the age of 12, Angel DeCora and six other children, boys and girls, traveled for three days and nights by train and arrived in the strange, new world of the Hampton Institute.

In the autobiographical story "Grey Wolfs Daughter," written and illustrated by Angel DeCora in 1899, she records some of the apprehensions that she felt at leaving her family and tribal traditions for the school which was to be her home for the next eight years:


Her mind had been wandering here and there to this and that one of her associates - to one who had been to school, to another who had staid at home and was a thorough Indian, comparing the life of one with the life of the other. She herself had for a long time desired knowledge of the white man's ways, and now her family had given their consent to her going to school. Tomorrow was to be the first (lay O a new life in the boarding school.[5]

This statement demonstrates a positive attitude toward education which is not commonly reported in studies of the Indian experience of accommodation.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute is located in southeastern Virginia near Norfolk. It was created originally for the education of Negroes, but in 1878 seventeen Indians were admitted to the school, all former Plains warriors who had been captured several years earlier and held as prisoners of the U.S. Department of War at Fort Marion, Florida. They were placed at Hampton through the efforts of Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, who believed that education could transform fierce and angry warriors into "useful and law-abiding citizens."

This was Pratt's first attempt to secure educational opportunities for Indians. He continued his efforts, and founded the Carlisle Indian School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1879. Because the first group of Indian warrior-students were successfully taught the basic tools for survival in the white world, Pratt was able to convince, though not without difficulty, Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ezra Hayt to allow small groups of Indian children to be brought to Hampton for training. These groups included Indian girls as well as boys because Pratt believed that "without educated women there is no civilization."[6]

The courses taught to the Indians enrolled at Hampton were basic. Many of the young people did not speak English when they arrived, so teaching them the language was first. The school stressed Christian character building, and according to Elaine Goodale Eastman, "Hampton constantly emphasized training for leadership and the service motive, inspiring the humblest of its children to go back and help their people toward the light."[7] They were also taught the manual arts, such as woodworking, smithing, shoemaking, printing, tailoring, and the like.

Cora Folsom, a Hampton teacher and correspondent for the Indians who followed Angel's career at Hampton with a great deal of interest, described her nature as a child. She said that Angel "was brought to Hampton with practically no education and very few words of the English language. She was pretty, bright, and affectionate, painfully shy and scarcely able to endure the sound of her own voice in the classroom."[8]

It was at Hampton that Angel first showed ability in art and music. Reports of those who knew her at this early date indicate that her interest in the arts arose spontaneously, although her teachers did not discourage it. A water-color sketch of an Indian encampment found in the Hampton Institute archives was probably made when she was a teenager. It is marked on the back as a gift to Cora Folsom. The artistic difficulties evident in the picture, such as the awkward modelling and simplistic perspective, place it as an early effort of an art student. It may picture the most direct memories which she had of her childhood.

It is difficult to determine if there was a particular art teacher at Hampton who took an interest in Angel DeCora as an artist. The fact that many of the original seventeen Hampton Indian "boys" were artists who, at Fort Marion drew pictures of their exploits, may have influenced Hampton teachers to be especially attuned and sympathetic to the artistic tendencies of their students.

Angel remained at Hampton for five years, and then was sent to Nebraska in response to a government regulation which required Indian students at boarding schools to return home after an allotted five years. Both her father and grandfather died during her stay at home, and so it may have been a difficult time for the 16-year-old girl. She reported in her autobiographical sketch that upon her return to the reservation the old way of life was gone. She was unable to cope with the disintegration of her family. Cora Folsom stated:


A representative from Hampton found her living with her grandmother and very unhappily situated. Old and new customs were at that time strongly conflicting currents, and a young girl had hardly more weight than a leaf between them. It was not easy to get her out from the stronger of these two currents, but it was accomplished and she was brought back to Hampton.[9]


She returned to Hampton in the fall of 1888 and remained there until her graduation in 1891. In this she was exceptional, for few of the Indians then actually completed the course. Because DeCora had shown talent in music and art, the principals of Hampton decided to sponsor her in a course of musical study at Miss Burnharn's School at Northhampton, Massachusetts. It became obvious during her short stay at this school, however, that "her special talent lay in her pencil and brush."[10]

She began her career as an artist when she entered the art department of Smith College in 1892. She earned her college tuition by acting as custodian for the Smith Museum. At Hampton, Angel had been isolated from the mainstream of art education, but at Smith she was introduced to one of the more successful American artists of her day, Dwight Tryon. None of her contacts in the art world were to be of a particularly avant garde variety (i.e., French impressionism, art nouveau, or cubism), but rather were based in the academic traditions of the Barbizon school, American Romantic-Realism, and American Impressionism as seen in the work of her teachers, Dwight Tryon, Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank Benson, and Howard Pyle.

It is difficult to assess which aspects of her Smith art education she immediately adopted and which she rejected because few if any of her works from this period (1892-1896) have been preserved. Only one painting possibly dates from this time, and that is a watercolor sketch. It is necessary, therefore, to judge her adherence to Tryon's style and methods through a retrospective comparison of her later illustrations and Tryon's work.

Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) was a well-known American landscape painter. In the 1870's he participated in several major American exhibitions. In 1885 he began teaching at Smith College and held this position for thirty-eight years. He had studied in Europe from 1877 to 1881 with de la Chevreusse, Daubigny, Harpignies, and Guillemet. Even though the Impressionist movement influenced artists in Paris during his tenure in Europe, he conservatively chose to follow in the footsteps of the earlier Barbizon School.

Tryon's paintings are mood-pieces. According to Nelson C. White: "The great body of Tryon's art is, in its entirety, a chorus in praise of nature. His paintings are the impressions and reflections of the changing seasons and the subtle movement of time from dawn to night."[11] He painted trees, boats, waves, and other elements of nature in a tonal manner. He suggests the form of these things rather than delineating them with sharp, crisp lines.

Tryon influenced Angel DeCora when she was a student. She said, "The instruction I received and the influence I gained from Mr. Tryon has left a lasting impression on me." [12] Her tendency to silhouette figures of people or buildings on a horizontal picture plane with a darkened foreground and a softly lighted background may be a technique learned from Tryon. She probably also gained a broad knowledge of art history from him since his philosophy was that "theory and practice should go hand in hand." [13] In spite of strictness in the classroom at Smith and a well-organized course of drawing from casts, from the model, and from still life, Tryon produced few professional women artists. This may be partially a consequence of his attitude that through his students "as wives and mothers, 'society might be humanized.'"[14] In addition, the fact that society did not encourage women to become professionals in any field made DeCora's efforts all the more adventuresome. She was one of the few of his students who persevered in her attempts to become a professional artist.

Angel remained a reserved personality while at Smith (1892-1896). It is recorded that "her retiring nature added to the difficulty of knowing her."[15] She was in an ambivalent situation at Smith. She was seen as both a typical college girl of the period and as an archetypical Indian princess or queen of the forest, similar in concept to Longfellow's Nokomis. On the one hand she was encouraged by teachers and others to integrate and forget her "Indianness," and on the other hand her race and achievements made her the object of fellow students' curiosity and admiration.

Upon graduation from Smith in 1896 she went to Philadelphia and the Drexel Institute for further training. Drexel was a center for teaching the art of illustration. Illustrations were exceedingly popular at the time. Contemporary magazines of the era, such as Harper's, Scribner's, Leslie's; Outing and The Outlook were replete with them in response to the public taste.

Prior to the invention of photoengraving in the 1880's, wood-engraving had been the most practical and common method for the illustration of mass-produced magazines. Aside from being extremely time consuming, the process had placed stylistic limitations on illustrators. The new method made possible the easy reproduction of paintings, drawings, and photographs in a manner which preserved their non-linear character. The process stimulated the field of illustration and was a boon to artists, many of whom were drawn to the field because of the new options and the possibility of a mass audience. Magazines were thought of, according to Walt Reed, as "a purveyor of the finest in literature and art."[I6]

Howard Pyle, DeCora's teacher of illustration at Drexel Institute, began teaching there hoping to develop quality illustrators, persons who could tell a story with pictures and incorporate the most sophisticated artistic techniques into their work. He taught at the school from 1894 to 1900, when he began a course of private instruction for specially selected students at his home in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.

Pyle spent much of his career illustrating children's books of fairy tales and adventure stories, for example The Wonder Clock or The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood which dealt with legendary Anglo-Saxon figures. In these, somewhat contrary to his general philosophy of Americanism, he drew heavily on the drawings and paintings of Holbein and Durer. The illustrations have a Neo-Gothic look to them and a richness of detail. Other of his paintings memorialized important moments in the history of the United States. Pyle was able to fit his motif to the subject matter which he was portraying. This ability included such devices as using medieval script with the Robin Hood pictures. The technique gave the reader the feeling that he was reading a medieval manuscript.

Pyle insisted that his students carefully study every item to be included in an illustration, encouraged them to prepare their work for publication, and was insistent that none of his students' pictures be used in Harper's or other current periodicals unless they were, in his judgment, of the highest quality. Pyle's system bore results. Such famous illustrators as Maxfield Parrish, Violet Oakley, Jesse Wilcox Smith, N. C. Wyeth, Stanley Arthurs, and Frank Schoonover developed their talents under his tutelage. In addition to insisting that his students conduct research on each detail to be included in a picture, he also wanted them to allow fantasy to overtake them, so that they would feel as if they were actors in the picture which they were executing. He once commented on a painting of Indians in canoes by N. C. Wyeth, his student: "I like this because you have seen it from an Indian's viewpoint." [17] Pyle, therefore, must have been pleased to have Angel DeCora as his student. Here was someone who would not have to imagine what an Indian's viewpoint would be.

At this point in her career, Pyle directed DeCora to do studies of Indian life. He sponsored a trip to Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for her in the summer of 1897 so she could study the details of Indian life and do drawings and paintings of Indians while in first-hand contact with them. Fort Berthold in North Dakota was home to the Ankara, Mandan, and Hidatsa tribes.

While at Fort Berthold, Angel assisted Anna Dawson, a former Hampton schoolmate and matron for the Indians. Cora Folsom describes the young artist's activities there: "She went about into the homes of the people and did a great deal of sketching and photographing, as well as several large canvasses. Some of the portraits she made there of the old chiefs are of great value as well as beauty" (Figure 1).[18]

Much of her work done under the direction of Pyle has been lost, but several examples appeared in the February and November issues of Harper's New Monthly Magazine for 1899 (Figures 2 and 3). Following the example which Pyle set, that of writing and illustrating stories to be published, DeCora created two works which are essentially reminiscences of an Indian childhood. The stories "The Sick Child" and "Grey Wolf's Daughter" were published in the issues of Harper's mentioned above. These were her first published works and are early examples of fiction written and illustrated by an American Indian.

The illustrations which accompanied "Grey Wolf's Daughter" and "The Sick Child" show Pyle's influence in that they are more detailed in their conceptions of costume, facial expression and setting than any other illustrations she did. No doubt Pyle encouraged her to focus on memories of her childhood, hoping that her reminiscences would produce more "Indian" pictures. He was also aware of the difficulties in outlook caused by Angel's Indian cultural heritage. He felt that he had discovered a genius in Angel, [19] but he also said of her that, "unfortunately she was a woman and still more unfortunately an American Indian. She was so retiring that she always kept in the background of my classes. When I tried to rouse her ambition by telling her how famous she might become, she answered: 'We Indian women are taught that modesty is a woman's chief virtue."[20]

Under the influence of Pyle's teaching methods, her pictures became more linear and contained more ethnographic detail. She specified the individual characteristics of the actors in the scenes she painted. These methods are in contrast to the more impressionistic and soft-edged, tonal qualities which Dwight Tryon had encouraged. If she had followed his lead, her pictures would have been less concerned with telling a story than with evoking a mood by their overall appearance.

During her three year association with Pyle at Drexel, in Chadds Ford, and at his Wilmington headquarters, she became acquainted with several well-known women artists of the day, including Cecilia Beau, Alice Barbour Stevens, and Katherine Pyle. Cecilia Beau was a highly regarded artist, and was teaching in Philadelphia during the time that Angel DeCora resided there. She was elected a full member of the American Academy of Design in 1902, a rare honor for a woman. Later in her career she was commissioned to paint portraits of Clemenceau, Cardinal Mercier of Belgium, and Admiral Beatty of England. Angel was probably encouraged in her pursuit of an artistic career because of her acquaintances with these successful women artists.

While she was a student of illustration, DeCora began to feel a conflict between "Art for Art's Sake" and "Commercial Art." Possibly in an effort to resolve this confusion, she went to Boston in 1899 to study at the Cowles Art School with Joseph DeCamp. DeCamp retired shortly after her arrival, and so she shifted her studies to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School where she worked with Frank Benson and Edmund C. Tarbell. Both Tarbell and Benson painted in a relatively traditional manner emphasizing genteel, domestic scenes. Both had attended the classes of Boulanger and LeFebvre at the Academic Julien of Paris. They commonly depicted women or children in their paintings. Benson emphasized the human figure on sunlit landscape and Tarbell created interior scenes where light also played an important part in the picture. The paintings of Benson were reputed to


have something of the sweetness of the old-fashioned ideals of high bred feminine grace and loveliness, with the breadth and looseness of the modern style of workmanship. His pictures have the refinement of the 18th century English female type with the freedom and vivacity of the 19th century girl.[21]


DeCora entered the Boston school in February of 1900 and was enrolled in a "life drawing" class. She worked there for two years and was awarded an honorable mention in the Concours Scholarships for 1900 and 1901.[22]

Pyle's influence on DeCora's work lessened after she moved to Boston to study with Tarbell and Benson. A tendency to generalize about settings and accouterments entered her work. The photographic clarity of details was gone. Her work became more impressionistic, possibly because of the influence of her new teachers who utilized looser brushwork and emphasized qualities of light in their work. In spite of a loss of specificity in many details of her paintings, the human faces portrayed remain distinctively Indian and individualized, a characteristic which may be accounted for by the fact that she knew many Indian individuals, although not in native settings.

Despite a desire to avoid painting on commission for book publishers as she had done while a student of Pyle, DeCora was drawn back into the field of illustration while studying at the Boston Museum Fine Arts School. Certainly financial need and perhaps the desire to show her work publicly led her to take up illustrating again. That she approached her career as an illustrator with reservations is evidenced by a statement she made in reference to that career: "Although at times I yearn to express myself in landscape art, I feel that designing is the best channel in which to convey the native qualities of the Indian's decorative talent."[23] This statement was written in 1911 after she had been a teacher of native American art at the Carlisle Indian School for some years. She apparently wanted to work as a fine artist, painting landscapes and portraits as her teacher, Dwight Tryon, and her friend, Cecilia Beau, had done, but she also wanted to contribute to the welfare of the Indians of whom she was a representative. These two desires conflicted at times,and were never successfully resolved in her art.

DeCora maintained a studio at 62 Rutland Square in Boston (1899-1903) and later in New York (1903-1906). During this period she produced a series of illustrations for books with Indian subject matter. She created illustrations, title pages and cover designs for Francis LeFlesche's The Middle Five: Indian Boys at School, published in 1900; Mary Catherine Judd's Wigwam Stories Told by North American Indians, published in 1906; Zitkala-Sa's Old Indian Legends, published in 1907; and Natalie Curtis' The Indian's Book, published in 1907.

After she became the teacher of Native American Art at the Carlisle Indian School in 1906, her production as an illustrator all but ceased with the exception of a cover for The Red Man of September, 1913, illustrations for Yellow Star: A Story of East and West by Elaine Goodale Eastman, published in 1911, and several illustrations for an article, "The American Eagle, an Indian Symbol" by Dr. Charles Eastman, published in the Summer issue for 1911 of The American Indian Magazine.


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