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The Burial of Minnehaha, 1887
William de Leftwich Dodge (1867-1935)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
25 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches
Signature Details: William L. Dodge/Paris
Status: Available

Then they buried Minnehaha;

In the snow a grave they made her

In the forest deep and darksome

Underneath the moaning hemlocks;

Clothed her in her richest garments                                                                                                      
Wrapped her in her robes of ermine,                                                                         Covered her with snow, like ermine;
Thus they buried Minnehaha.                                                                                          

     And at night a fire was lighted,

On her grave four times was kindled,

For her soul upon its journey

To the Islands of the Blessed.

From his doorway Hiawatha
Saw it burning in the forest,
Lighting up the gloomy hemlocks;
From his sleepless bed uprising,
From the bed of Minnehaha,
Stood and watched it at the doorway,
That it might not be extinguished,
Might not leave her in the darkness.
      "Farewell!" said he, "Minnehaha!
Farewell, O my Laughing Water!
All my heart is buried with you,
All my thoughts go onward with you!
Come not back again to labor,
Come not back again to suffer,
Where the Famine and the Fever
Wear the heart and waste the body.
Soon my task will be completed,
Soon your footsteps I shall follow
To the Islands of the Blessed,
To the Kingdom of Ponemah,
To the Land of the Hereafter!"

 

The Song of Hiawatha, Canto XX

On November 10, 1855, the American poet and author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his American saga The Song of Hiawatha. The epic-length narrative poem about a legendary Native American chief became an international success. Within two years of its publication, it had sold as many as 50,000 copies and by the end of the nineteenth century had been translated into dozens of foreign languages with multiple editions in French and German. For nearly a century The Song of Hiawatha inspired American writers to explore the myths and legends of Native Americans and use them to create works of history and literature. In addition, Longfellow’s poem inspired two generations of visual artists‒painters, sculptors, and illustrators‒and world-renowned musical composers to bring sight and sound to Hiawatha, his wife, Minnehaha, and the other characters in The Song of Hiawatha. Although it is largely forgotten today by cultural tastemakers and critical scholars alike, The Song of Hiawatha once epitomized for the United States and Europe a complicated vision of America that both honored Native American “noble savages” and celebrated Euro-Americans’ conquest of the continent. 

          Born in 1807 in Portland, Maine, Longfellow believed himself destined from an early age to be a scholar and poet. He attended Bowdoin College and by the time he graduated in 1825 was proficient in modern European languages and a much-published poet. With the promise of a teaching job at Harvard University, Longfellow traveled to Europe in 1826 and again in 1834 to strengthen his knowledge of its languages and literature. There he discovered Celtic and Scandinavian sagas that became models for his most famous work.  He taught modern foreign languages for twenty years at Harvard before he retired in 1854 and devoted his career to writing poetry. 

One of Longfellow’s early poems, “The Burial of Minnisink” published in 1825 and collected in Voices of the Night (1839), had as its subject the funeral procession and burial of a Native American of the Minnisink tribe that had lived in the Delaware Valley. When Longfellow modeled the poem’s funeral upon heroic funerals described in the Iliad and Aeneid, he started upon a creative path that led to the Native American saga of The Song of Hiawatha, published within a year of him leaving Harvard. This lengthy verse saga that brought him international renown and powerfully shaped American and European notions regarding Native Americans. The Song of Hiawatha was a publishing sensation, selling as many as fifty thousand copies in English within five years of its publication. 

In a much-reprinted edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Longfellow, the poet described the genesis of The Song of Hiawatha. He had taken Native American stories and legends from the publications of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and others and even some oral history conversations with Native Americans living in Massachusetts and transformed them into a saga with twenty two “cantos” modeled on The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic written by Elias Lonnrot in 1835. The Song of Hiawatha gave the United States and its distinctive Native American history and culture a place within a world-wide movement of literary, cultural, and even political nationalism. 

Longfellow had a long, distinguished career as a member of the American “Fireside Poets,” authors of works that enshrined national themes and paid homage to American history and culture. His long poems Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847) and The Courtship of Miles Standish (1858) were revered in their day and his smaller poems such as “The Village Blacksmith” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” were taught to American schoolchildren for generations. In his later years Longfellow returned to more academic studies and published a translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy that earned considerable praise. Longfellow died in 1882, and in 1884 a portrait bust of him was installed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. Longfellow is the only American writer to receive that honor.  Despite the esteem Longfellow garnered in the nineteenth century, Longfellow’s  poems including The Song of Hiawatha have been out of fashion for the past half century. Their celebratory tone, simplistic rhymes and meters, and lack of self-awareness have made them artifacts of nineteenth-century American culture.  

Although it is not much honored today, The Song of Hiawatha once exerted a deep and powerful influence upon European and American culture. The poet’s use of themes common to the myths and sagas of Greece, Rome, India, and Scandinavia gave The Song of Hiawatha cultural authority that was alluring to artists of all kinds. This allure lasted for nearly a century and inspired painters, sculptors, playwrights, and even composers of classical music to create works based upon the poem. 

William de Leftwich Dodge’s use of scenes from The Song of Hiawatha is, of course, the most important visual arts adaptation for the purposes of this essay but another one—Charles Baudelaire’s 1860 translation of part of the Song into French—provided another example of Longfellow’s influence that was both surprising and relevant to Dodge’s artistic development.  Baudelaire (1821‒67) was a path-breaking poet and cultural critic of nineteenth-century France. His Fleurs du Mal (1857) made him notorious, but his advocacy of American poet Edgar Allan Poe and translations of his poems into French brought American literature, including Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, to the attention of European artists, writers, intellectuals, and musicians. The story of Baudelaire’s translation of 800 lines of Hiawatha highlighted the poem’s impact upon American and European classical music. In the late 1850s the German-born composer Robert Stoepel (1821‒87) composed Hiawatha, a symphony including a chorus that sang and a narrator who recited texts from Longfellow’s poem. When he planned to perform the symphony in France, he commissioned Baudelaire to translate the choral texts into French. Thus, a German musical composer, Stoepel, and a French poet, Baudelaire, and cultural critic combined to introduce The Song of Hiawatha to French culture during the 1860s. 

The musical legacy of The Song of Hiawatha extends beyond Stoepel’s symphony. It is extensive, stretching into the twentieth century and is distinctive in its own right. But, it is also relevant to the poem’s visual arts legacy because it reveals just how deeply Longfellow’s saga captured the imaginations of artists throughout the western world. The British composer Edward Delius (1862‒1934) composed a Hiawatha tone poem in 1888, and Antonin Dvorak (1841‒1904), the Czech composer who highly valued American folk music, used The Song of Hiawatha as inspiration for the largo movement of his Symphony Number 9 (the New World Symphony) in 1893. During 1898 and 1899, the Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875‒1912) composed three cantatas based upon three of Longfellow’s cantos.  One of them, “The Death of Minnehaha” shared its inspiration with the painter Dodge. Along with its literary and musical manifestations, the poem captured the attention of classically-trained visual artists, especially those who studied at the French National School, The École des Beaux-Arts, and the atelier of Jean Léon Gérôme. The Song of Hiawatha had traveled to France a dozen years before the young native of Liberty, Virginia, William Leftwich Dodge, traveled to Paris to pursue his vocation as a painter and muralist.  

William de Leftwich Dodge was born March 9, 1867, in Liberty, Virginia.  As a child he lived briefly in Chicago, IL, and Brooklyn, NY, but in 1879 at the age of twelve he traveled with his mother to Munich, Bavaria, where she pursued her intention to become a professional painter. In 1881, the family, which included William and two younger siblings, settled in Paris. From that time forward William applied himself to the artist’s profession. He took drawing classes at The École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Colarossi. While studying at these two institutions he began applying to admission to the atelier of Jean Léon Gérôme, who was also a teacher at The École des Beaux-Arts. Winning admission to the atelier in 1885 William continued to study with Gérôme and with Louis-Joseph Raphael Collin (1850‒1916) at the Académie  Colarossi. 

Dodge’s training under Collin became important to Dodge’s career. Collin in particular used his high level of academic training to move in a direction of more symbolism and impressionism. He also worked on large-size paintings, including murals in the Parisian cultural landmarks of the Hotel de Ville, Theatre de L’eon, and Opera Comique. Collin’s example of implementing symbolism and visual effects of the supernatural are found in Dodge’s Hiawatha paintings. Collin began to emphasize the picture surface by reducing the spatial depth of his paintings as well as composing with areas of concentrated color. Yet, he never abandoned two hallmarks of his academic lineage: allegory and naturalism. Collin’s influence upon Dodge may have been greater than that of Gérôme and the legacies of Gérôme and The École des Beaux-Arts. If that was the case, the influence of The Song of Hiawatha was also strong upon the young Dodge. In 1884 he painted a study for The Death of Minnehaha, and in 1887 Dodge painted both The Death of Minnehaha and The Burial of Minnehaha, a painting recently rediscovered.  His willingness to mix expressionist elements‒the ghosts of Famine and Death‒in Minnehaha’s deathbed scene with the muscular academic traditions of Gérôme suggest that he was finding his own precocious way into the art world. 

William de Leftwich Dodge returned from Paris in 1889 and shared a studio with the painter George Bridgman. He painted and designed illustrations for books and popular magazines while he looked for commissions, especially commissions to create murals. Much of his artistic legacy can be seen in the large-scale works he created for the Library of Congress, the dome of the main building in the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the Chicago “World’s Fair”), the Flag Room of the New York State Capitol at Albany, and may other public and private buildings throughout the United States. William de Leftwich Dodge died March 25, 1935, and is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City. 

There is no evidence that Dodge ever created a mural of The Burial of Minnehaha as he did with her deathbed scene. However, he did paint other Hiawatha-themed paintings, both easel work and murals that have survived to the present day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Fraser, W. Lewis. “W. L. Dodge.” Century Magazine 42, no. 5 (September 1891): 797‒8.

Kimbrough, Leftwich Dodge. “Portrait of the Artist: Dodge’s Murals Helped Create ‘National Monument of Art.’” Library of Congress Art Bulletin 56, no. 9 (May 1997):                                         http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/970505/dodge.html.  Accessed

October 10 by Alexander Moore.

Kimbrough, Sara Dodge.  Drawn from Life:  The Story of Four American Artists whose Friendship & Work Began in Paris during the 1880s.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. 1976.

The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Cambridge Edition. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin. 1922.  Text: 113Appendix with Notes: 664‒7.

Lockhart, Joe. “The Universal Hiawatha.” American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 110‒25.

Hamrick, L. Cassandra. “Baudelaire and Hiawatha.” In Translation and the Arts in Modern France. Ed. by Sonya Stephens (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2017.): 45‒67.

Nickerson, Cynthia D. “Artistic Interpretations of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” 1855‒1900.” American Art Journal 16, no. 3 (Summer 1984): 49‒77.

Platt, Frederick.  “A Brief Autobiography of William de Leftwich Dodge.” American Art Journal 14, no. 3 (Spring 1982): 55‒63. 

Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS).  Accessed October 16, 2018 by Alexander Moore. 

 

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