The Trail of Tears and The Cost of Removal

The morality within Titus Kaphar's portrait of Andrew Jackson

Titus Kaphar, The Cost of Removal, 2017, oil, canvas, and rusted nails on canvas, 274.3 x 213.4 x 3.8 cm, © Titus Kaphar (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art). Speakers: Lauren Haynes, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) and Dr. Beth Harris

Kaphar, The Cost of Removal

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Key points

  • Portraits often represent leaders as heroic, noble, and deserving of respect and admiration. Such images, however, fashion an incomplete historical narrative that may not acknowledge the problematic or even violent aspects of their legacies.
  • Signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830, the Indian Removal Act authorized the president to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi in exchange for Indian lands within existing state borders. Native Americans were forcibly removed by the U.S. government, including 4,000 Cherokee Indians who died on what became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
  • Copying and altering Ralph Earl’s 1836 portrait of Andrew Jackson is one way that Titus Kaphar calls our attention to the power of art and museums in writing a history that is, in his words, “at best incomplete, and at worst fiction.” The viewer is reminded of who is typically included in this telling of history and who is typically excluded.

Go deeper

Learn more about this work from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

See primary sources at the Library of Congress related to the Indian Removal Act of 1830

Learn about the removal of Cherokee and other Indian tribes as part of the Trail of Tears

Watch Titus Kaphar’s 2017 TED Talk, “Can art amend history?”  and his interview for the 2018 MacArthur Fellowship

Read a 2015 interview with Kaphar

See online resources and exhibitions at The Hermitage (Andrew Jackson’s home, now a museum)

Learn about Andrew Jackson’s presidency through primary source documents

More to think about

Read the comment below by Titus Kaphar, which was quoted in the video. Based on your own experience and academic study, do you agree that our understanding of history is inherently incomplete or idealized? What are some ways we might improve our knowledge to better understand the past?

“I feel very strongly that most of the history we have been taught is at best incomplete, and at worst, fiction. The more I read history, I realize that all depictions are to some degree fiction. . . We lose something in the interpretation, and as I realized that painters throughout history have embraced this idea of fiction, I have felt complete freedom to address these paintings in a way that made sense to me.”

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.