James Otto Lewis. “Com-No-Sa-Qua. A Pottowattomie Chief. Painted at the treaty of Missinnewa 1827 by J.O. Lewis.” From The Aboriginal Portfolio. Philadelphia: J. O. Lewis, 1835-1836. Lithograph by Lehman & Duval. Signed in the stone by J. Barincou. Original hand coloring. Image ca. 9 1/2 x 7 1/2.
James Otto Lewis’ very rare The Aboriginal Portfolio was the first published collection of portraits of native North Americans. The portfolio consisted of 80 portraits which were made “on the spot and in the field” by James Otto Lewis (1799-1858). Lewis began his work on American natives in 1823 with a portrait of Tens-qua-ta-wa, or the Prophet, which was commissioned by Governor Cass of Michigan. Born in Philadelphia, Lewis moved to St. Louis in 1815 as an actor and engraver. There he met and befriended Chester Harding, a portrait painter among whose sitters were some Indians. Harding had made a name for himself with his portrait of Daniel Boone, the only one Boone is known to have sat for. Lewis proceeded to engrave and publish this portrait, and this print, of which only one example is known to survive, is the only contemporary full-length print of Boone, and is also the earliest known print made west of the Mississippi.
In 1822 or 23, Lewis moved to Detroit, where he set up business as a portrait painter. It was there that Lewis received the commission to paint the Prophet. This painting was sent by Governor Cass to Thomas McKenney, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Cass suggested that Lewis be given $200 from the War Department to paint other Indian chiefs that visited Detroit, to which the impressed McKenney agreed. Cass asked Lewis to accompany him to Prairie du Chien in 1825, where a treaty was to be negotiated among the various mid-western tribes, and where Lewis painted 50 or 60 of the most prominent chiefs. In all Lewis was to accompany Cass to three other treaties, making a unique record of the chiefs who attended.
Some of the portraits that Lewis made were sent to Thomas McKenney, who was planning the publication of a series of prints with likenesses of important Indian chiefs and squaws. While most of these prints were based on the work of Charles Bird King, Lewis was the original artist for 27 of the 150 prints that were eventually published in McKenney’s History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Perhaps inspired by or in competition with McKenney, Lewis also planned such a portfolio of prints. Lewis’ Aboriginal Portfolio was to be published in ten monthly parts, beginning in May 1835, each part of which was to contain eight hand colored lithographs and was to be priced at $2.
Unfortunately, the project ran into financial difficulties after the ninth part, and only a few of the tenth part are known to have been published, and of these only five of the eight prints are by Lewis. Even the first nine parts were not issued in great number, and very few complete sets [a portfolio of 72 prints is usually considered complete] or individual prints have survived.