Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Syacust Ukah

This portrait of a Cherokee man was painted during a peace delegation from the Indigenous nation to meet the King of England.

Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA, Portrait of Syacust Ukah, 1762, oil on canvas, 120 x 89.9 cm (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking at a large, magnificent portrait of a Native American.

Dr. William Smith: [0:13] His name was Ostenaco, but he went by multiple names and titles. This is “Syacust Ukah” by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Dr. Zucker: [0:21] Now, Reynolds was the premier painter in England for portraits at this moment.

Dr. Smith: [0:26] In 1762, Ostenaco is joined by two others, part of a peace delegation from the Cherokees. Reynolds is capturing a moment of great tension in [the] British Empire as the Seven Years’ War is coming to an end.

Dr. Zucker: [0:41] The Cherokee had been allies of the British, but that alliance had broken down, and war had broken out. The new treaty had been signed, but Ostenaco wanted assurances from the English king.

Dr. Smith: [0:52] This was an alliance that was vital for the success of the British in North America. They are still jockeying for power in North America with the French, and the Cherokee were particularly powerful, and the instability of that moment is captured here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] This was a really fraught visit. The visit was, of course, to be dignified. It was a visit to the king, but Ostenaco became the focus of celebrity and of raucous reception.

Dr. Smith: [1:20] There is a long history of Indigenous voyages to England, but in the 1760s this particular delegation attained a certain level of public spectacle. As they were toured around England, they are attracting huge crowds. Sometimes watching, sometimes disrupting their movements.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] The sitter looks out at us with a three-quarter view. His eyes are open, he looks confident, he looks powerful. His political importance is clear, but at least to my eyes, his eyes seem to be slightly quizzical.

Dr. Smith: [1:53] We are not quite sure what he might be weighing. I think this points to the experience that not only Reynolds would have had in painting this, but the trip in large, because there was communication hampered as a result of the translator dying en route.

Dr. Zucker: [2:09] This important political figure was having trouble communicating with the English, who didn’t really understand him except in the most rudimentary way, and that raises such an interesting question.

Dr. Smith: [2:18] Especially for Reynolds, where his portraiture style had to pull out virtues from the sitter, which meant that he had to know some specific details about the people who he’s painting. I think there are ways in this portrait that we see that he might be at a loss.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] It is as if Reynolds has placed this man where one of the landed gentry would normally stand. That’s certainly true, I think, if we look at the upper right corner, where we see a little bit of vegetation that’s framing the figure, but maybe not so much when we look at the lower left, where we see a distant landscape that might be recalling the Americas.

Dr. Smith: [2:50] This would have been particular to Ostenaco’s ancestral homelands.

Dr. Zucker: [2:55] Power is expressed in the painting, not only in his erect posture, in his sense of self-possession, but also in the royal way in which he holds a pipe tomahawk in his right hand, almost as if it was the royal emblem of a scepter.

Dr. Smith: [3:10] It also indicates the tension of this moment. This is a weapon of war, it is also an instrument of peace.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] We see him wearing a brilliant red satin gold-embroidered cloak, this cloth that wraps around his shoulders as if it could easily have been worn by an English monarch.

Dr. Smith: [3:27] This would have been typical of 18th-century military portraiture. We see the importance of Ostenaco as a military figure, but the instability is clear in this robe that hangs precariously off of his left shoulder. Any sudden movement, it could easily fall off.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] Then around his neck, he’s wearing three emblems that speak of this transatlantic moment. He’s got first a sash that he’s brought with him from the Americas. This is wampum.

Dr. Smith: [3:55] Wampum would have meant a great deal to a number of Indigenous nations. Prior to European contact, it was a way of solidifying alliance with tribes, emphasizing certain important ceremonial moments. And so this is indicating peace, alliance, and friendship.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] That’s further emphasized by the two European objects that he wears around his neck. We see a peace medal that probably represents a profile portrait of King George III, and then above that a military gorget.

Dr. Smith: [4:26] The peace medal would have been given to the most important member of an Indigenous nation and would represent the alliance with Britain. The gorget was a part of British military uniform, particularly for higher-ranking officers, communicating his rank to the British Empire at this moment.

Dr. Zucker: [4:47] It’s such a beautiful example of Reynolds’ brilliance as a painter, the way in which that design dissolves into flickers of light, and his brush flicks across that surface, picking up the quality of the metal. He does that as well in the gold brocade over the shoulder.

Dr. Smith: [5:03] What really jumps off the canvas is these British imperial colors, he is literally robed in empire.

[5:09] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. William Smith and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Sir Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Syacust Ukah," in Smarthistory, September 1, 2022, accessed July 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/joshua-reynolds-portrait-syacust-ukah/.