The Pow-Wow by William G. Gaul

Name: The Pow-Wow | Artist: William G. Gaul Media: Oil on canvas | Year(s): ca. 1890
William G. Gaul | The Pow-Wow | ca. 1890 | Oil on canvas | 18 1/8 inches x 24 1/8 inches

About the Work

William G. Gaul was one of the five special agents who took the census of 1890 among the Indians, illustrating the "Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed." The report was an extensive undertaking by special team of artists who recorded indigenous life in texts, sketches, photographs and paintings. Traveling extensively, Gaul gathered impressions firsthand and in 1890 offered an unvarnished picture of life on the Sioux reservation. He did not dress up his Indians or show them engaged in activities of an earlier day. Rather, he recorded exactly what he saw. The tone of The Pow-Wow gives it a dimension beyond the literal, making it a statement of the Plains Indian in transition. Gaul observed, "The appearance of the Indian is fast changing. The day of buffalo robes and buckskins is passing away. With the Sioux breechcloths are no more. The Indian is no longer a gaily bedecked individual. Most of his furs and feathers have disappeared simultaneously with the deerskin." There is a fine feeling for the expanse of the Dakotas here, but also a sense of confinement, a realization that the horizon has permanently shrunk for the buffalo-hunting warriors of yesteryear who now listlessly wait at the agency to receive their beef rations on issue day.

About William G. Gaul

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey on March 31, 1855, William Gilbert Gaul was best known for his military scenes, drawing inspiration from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, and even World War I. Although he originally intended to pursue a career in the military, ill health prevented Gaul from entering the Navy.

With an interest and skill for art, Gaul moved to New York City at the young age of 17, where he enrolled in the National Academy of Design. His studies there emphasized realism and genre painting. His training at the academy and his instructors’ influence remained with him throughout his career as evidenced in his art. Later, Gaul joined the Art Students League of New York after its founding in 1875.

The year 1876 marks the artist’s first journey to the West. Unfortunately, no known sketches or written records have survived. However, in an 1898 interview, Gaul recounts an incident he encountered with an Indian Chief, Yellow Wolf, whom he had met in a Sioux Camp three weeks before the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Upon his return to New York, Gaul began painting military and Western scenes, for which he received much public acclaim. The artist painted sympathetically towards his subjects. Rather than focus on violence and carnage, his Civil War series revealed the artist’s concern with universal suffering, showing soldiers as human beings with heart who engaged with each other off the battlefield.

In 1877, Gaul was one of the younger men to gain entry into the spring exhibit of the National Academy of Design. At the age of 27, he became the youngest artist awarded full membership to the National Academy as Academician (N.A.), a status of high honor and prestige.  Through his many accolades, including medals at both the Paris Exposition (1889) and Chicago and Columbian Exposition (1893), Gaul fashioned a reputation as a leading figure painter in the U.S., and preeminent in the field of military painters.

After the death of his uncle, the artist inherited a small farm in Tennessee, the birthplace of his mother. In order to possess the property, the will stipulated that Gilbert had to live on the land for at least four years, forcing the artist to leave his home in New York in 1881, where he had become well-established in the city’s art circles. Throughout his career, the artist continued to visit Tennessee, maintaining a cabin and studio on the farm, where he painted some of his greatest pictures of the local landscape and people.

Like another artist represented in the Sid Richardson Collection - Peter Moran - Gaul served as a special agent for the 1890 census of Indians in the United States, observing the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Reservations in North Dakota. During his visit, Gaul painted from life a portrait of Sitting Bull, completed just months before the chieftain’s death. After the trip, Gaul traveled to South America, documenting scenes and events he encountered in Mexico, West Indies, Panama, and Nicaragua.

For at least a decade or more, magazines looked to Gaul to use his work both to illustrate articles and serve as frontispieces, with many depicting military subjects, but included genre and western scenes, as well. Unfortunately, over time, collectors became increasingly attracted to the other artists and movements. After a period of much success, by 1904, the artist began to struggle financially from which he would never recover, forcing him to give up his New York studio. Working from a studio in Nashville, Gaul continued to illustrate novels, though profits were limited. Likewise, his paintings were not selling well, and most of his late works remained unsold by his death from tuberculosis on December 23, 1919.