Driven Back, De Cost Smith, 1892
De Cost Smith (1864-1939) was intrigued by native cultures since childhood. In his native New York, he frequently visited the Onondaga Reservation south of Syracuse. He ventured west in 1884, where he spent time among the Sioux people in the Dakota Territory. His deep knowledge and understanding of the Dakota language and culture allowed him to represent the Sioux people in a truthful manner, sympathetic to their plight.
In Driven Back, Smith shows a party of Sioux braves in their war bonnets. They turn and engage a few shots with their enemy, federal troopers. The outnumbered Sioux have taken a casualty. Before it came into the Museum’s collection, the painting was called War Party, signifying the Sioux as aggressors. The original and current title more accurately describes the scene, as the Sioux braves are clearly retreating. The painting realistically illustrates a dramatic event, as well as portrays the vast open spaces and subtle hues of the American West.
Smith first exhibited Driven Back at the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Historians there called the western frontier a distinctive feature of American life, vital to our country’s exceptional character. The closing of the frontier had just been declared earlier in the decade, so this work – considered the most significant military painting at the exposition – must have resonated for gallery audiences familiar with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Shows, underscoring the already passing frontier.
The End of the Trail, a sculpture in the Museum’s collection by James Earle Fraser, is another artwork presented at a World’s Fair whose artist and subject matter were sympathetic to the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.
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What’s in a name? The two different titles of this work – one in favor of the federal troopers, the other of the Sioux war party – completely change its meaning, though the image itself stays the same. More recently, the names of some sports teams have been challenged. How do you feel about changing a team’s name out of recognition or compassion for a group of historically marginalized people? Check out these links, and join the conversation below!