This painting is a very fine example of Henderson’s strengths as a portrait painter. The subject is a formidable figure: his expression is stern, his eyes watchful and somewhat disdainful and haughty, but yet with a sense of humour and tolerance. He wears a mixture of Western and Indigenous clothing: a beaded or embroidered floral sash with red ribbons over what appears to be a Western-style cloth jacket. The portrait has been described as ‘a powerful image of individualism. Open though some of its brushwork is, the portrait retains particularity in its depiction of beadwork and in the realization of surface texture.’ (Matthew Teitelbaum, Twenty-Five Years of Collecting, Mendel Art Gallery, 1989, p.40.)
Untitled (Plains Indian), c. 1924
Oil on canvas
62.0 x 46.3 cm
Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery. Purchsed with the assistance of funds from PriceWaterhouse, Chartered Accountants, 1986.
Provenance: Uno Langman, Vancouver, BC; Sonia de Grandmaison (Fine Art Broker), Vancouver, BC; Art Placement, Saskatoon, SK.
This painting is also interesting because of its changing titles through the years, reflecting the uncertainty that surrounds the identities of Henderson’s Indigenous portraits. The invoice from Art Placement lists the title as Untitled (Cree Indian Portrait), undated, c. late 30s to early 40s. This was amended to Untitled (Plains Indian), c. 1935–45, in 1989. In a letter to the author in 2002, James A. McLennan, M.D., of Burnaby, BC, who had seen the portrait in the exhibition Qu’Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys, states, ‘Untitled (in the show wall of the various Chiefs & Indians) by Henderson—is titled in the companion piece (of the same person)…on a brass plaque below ‘James Henderson, Sun Walking—Blackfoot Chief Fort Qu’Appelle (sic)’. Presumably Dr. McLennan had seen or owned this companion piece, and was also pointing out that the Blackfoot did not live in Fort Qu’Appelle. Linda Many Guns has suggested that the name of this person is not Sun Walking but Sun Walk, which is the title we have currently given it. The date of c. 1935 initially ascribed to the work also seems incorrect as research indicates that by the early 1930s, Henderson had almost completely given up painting portraits and was concentrating on landscape paintings. If in fact this is a portrait of a Blackfoot man, it would have been done after Henderson visited Gleichen, in 1923 and again in 1926, to carry out research for the University of Saskatchewan portrait commission. Even more problematically, when compared to the figure of Sun Walk(ing) from the University’s collection, the man in this portrait seems to be a different individual, placing the Blackfoot attribution in doubt. This convoluted sequence of circumstances gives some sense of some of the problems related to naming and dating portraits by Henderson.