Born on a family homestead in Ohio in 1860, Edwin Willard Deming grew up on the prairie lands of Illinois. The young boy spent many hours drawing the outdoors. To satisfy his family’s wishes, Deming went to Chicago to study law, but quickly left for New York to become an artist. In 1883, he joined the Art Students’ League and continued his studies in Paris the following year at the Julian Academy. After a successful year abroad and a short stint creating cycloramas, or panoramic paintings, in Chicago, Deming returned to New York, where he began making Western illustrations and writing stories for a boys’ magazine, the Youth’s Companion.
As a child, Deming experienced his first encounter with Native Americans when the Winnebagoes would travel down from Wisconsin to hunt and trap nearby. In the late 1880s, Deming went to live with the Crow Indians near Little Bighorn River, the site of the infamous defeat of General Custer. The artist made many studies of the Crows and their homes and land, where the battle took place. Thus began the next thirty years of traveling among Indian groups all over North America, becoming friends with the likes of Gall, a Sioux leader, and Rain in the Face, Flying By, Iron Tail, Big Moon, the Cheyenne chief, and others. Deming even received Sitting Bull’s permission to photograph one of the dances of the Ghost Dance ceremony. During his stay in the Southwest, the artist lived among the Apaches and joined them on their hunting trips. The Apaches taught him how to find edible roots and berries as well as how to track in the deserts and mountains. Deming listened to their stories by the campfire, all the while taking photographs and making sketches from which he created paintings during the long winters back in his New York studio.
By 1891, Deming had begun to establish himself as an artist and illustrator, receiving commissions for paintings and murals throughout the nation and working for some of the most popular magazines of the period. Newly wed in 1892, the artist began to collaborate with his young bride, who would write about their experiences living among the Indians together. Deming would illustrate the text. This partnership resulted in several publications, with their first book published in 1899 called Indian Pictures. Deming also teamed up with additional artists to illustrate other books, including Frederic Remington, Charles Schreyvogel, and Henry Fangel.
In 1898, after having met a delegation of Piegan Blackfeet during a visit to the nation’s capital, Deming visited their reservation in Montana, where he witnessed their Sun Dance and was made an honorary member of the tribe. The Blackfeet gave Deming the name Eight Bears. Having developed a close relationship with the tribe, Deming returned years later in 1914 with his wife and children.
After the artist and his family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1917, Deming volunteered with the United States Army, training a regiment in marksmanship, designing new styles of camouflage, and developing landscape targets. He also devised a new rifle stock with pistol grips, which was thereafter approved and issued to the troops when Deming was discharged in 1920.
The artist was much beloved throughout his career and made friends with many, including former president Theodore Roosevelt, who was a collector of Deming’s work. His paintings were placed in many well-known public institutions during his lifetime, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, and the American Museum of Natural History, which had commissioned the artist to complete a series of murals for their Plains Indian Room. Often known as "the painter of the Indian soul," Deming painted in an Impressionist manner and imbued his canvases with a diffused softness. The artist also worked in sculptures and produced several bronzes of wildlife and Native Americans. In 1934, Deming became the first living artist to have a painting reproduced on a U.S. postage stamp. Deming died in 1942 in New York.