Elbridge Ayer Burbank

American 1858 - 1949 


Elbridge Ayer Burbank was an American artist who was born in Harvard, Illinois on August 10, 1858.  As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, he won many honors and upon graduation he accepted a job with Northwest Magazine.  One of his assignments was to do Western scenes to promote land sales for the Northern Pacific Railway.  Gathering material for this job allowed travel to the Rocky Mountains, Idaho, Montana and Washington.  After several years Burbank resigned and went to Munich, Germany for further art training.  Among his fellow students were future painters of Western subjects Joseph H. Sharp, William R. Leigh and Toby Rosenthal—who became a close friend.  Upon his return from Europe he specialized for a time in painting the African-American children of Chicago.
A great turning point in Burbank's career came through a family connection. His uncle was Edward E. Ayer, who was the first president of the Field Columbian Museum, a trustee of the Newberry Library and the owner of one of the finest private libraries of books on Indian culture in the United States.  Ayer commissioned his nephew to do a series of portraits of Indian chiefs who were prominent at the time.  

Burbank traveled throughout the West, visiting one hundred twenty-eight tribes and painting the leading figures of each.  From Oklahoma he traveled to New Mexico and Arizona painting the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni.  He painted numerous California tribes and later visited the Sioux, Crow, Nez Perce and Ute tribes.  Among those who sat for him were such illustrious personalities as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and Rain-in-the-Face. It is fortunate that Elbridge Ayer Burbank painted the famous old chiefs when he did, for not long after, many of them were dead or had adopted the white man's way of dressing.  This trip resulted in approximately twelve hundred works, done in oil, watercolor and conte crayon.  

Burbank was unique in that he was one of the few Western artists to employ crayon as a medium for portraiture; his use of it was highly successful.  Through the use of crayon, he achieved a freshness and power often lacking in the more conventional oil portraits.  

This collection, put together after his travels, is now in the Newberry Library in Chicago.  Many more of his paintings are in the Smithsonian Institution and a fine representation of his crayon portraits of Indians and oils of various subjects are in the collection of Hubbell Trading Post National Historic site.  Burbank left a rich and important historical legacy before his death on March 21, 1949, in San Francisco, California.


Source: Hubbell Trading Post National Historical Site