About a Painting - Joseph Wright’s ‘Indian Widow’

The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her deceased Husband, Joseph Wright

The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her deceased Husband, Joseph Wright - Credit: Archant

Romantic or political? Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums and Museum and Art Gallery Development for Derby Museums Trust, writes about the Indian Widow

The full title of the painting commonly known as the Indian Widow is ‘The Widow of an Indian Chief watching the Arms of her deceased Husband’ and for many the story depicted is a simple one. A Native American Chief has been killed and his widow mourns his loss. His arms – that is, his weapons – hang from a tree under which she sits and the turmoil in her head is mirrored by the wrath of nature around. However, the painting has a number of other possible meanings and like many of Wright’s paintings is full of contradictions. Wright states in a letter written in the year it was painted, 1784, that ‘I never painted a picture so universally liked’, but the painting remained unsold until he died.

We know that the subject of the painting was suggested by Wright’s good friend, the poet William Hayley. It is thought that the composition comes from a description in a book by James Adair published in 1775. Adair describes how a widow should mourn the death of her husband ‘and if he is a war-leader, she is obliged for the first moon, to sit in the day time under his mourning war-pole, which is decked with all his martial trophies...’

Wright paints the landscape, including a billowing volcano, and weather with great skill and accuracy, undoubtedly inspired by his visit to the Bay of Naples. The detail and accuracy of the depictions of the Native American objects suggest that he painted them from life. In letters to Hayley we see Wright asking Hayley for details of the appearance of an ‘Indian’ woman. We do not have a reply from Hayley but what we see in the finished painting is a figure more reminiscent of a classical figure or an 18th century funerary monument.

Yet what is more fascinating to me is the wider context of the painting and what else Wright may have been trying to suggest. During the 18th century Britain and America had a history even more entwined than in the 20th century. For much of the century the western states were part of the British Empire, while war with France in the mid 1700s saw Canada becoming British, and the American War of Independence kept America in the minds of the average Briton.

Wright and his friends had plenty of contact with America and Americans. For example, John Whitehurst was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Parker Coke, Derby’s MP, decided on compensation for loyalist Britons who lost everything following the American War of Independence.

At the same time there was a call in America for ‘no taxation without representation’ – the trigger for the Boston Tea Party, but not the ultimate outcome of independence for America – so might this picture highlight or make comment on American political issues that were common discussion topics in the coffee houses of Britain?

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I believe that it does. Wright is showing his understanding and some opinion of what happened in America during his lifetime. The comparison between the Indian Widow and Britannia is easy to see. Is the widow mourning the death of her husband actually Britain mourning the loss of America?

The Indian Widow painting is currently part of the Joseph Wright of Derby: Bath and Beyond exhibition which explores the influence of Wright’s time in Bath in the 1770s on his work and practice. This exhibition runs at Derby Museum and Art Gallery until the 31st August 2014.