It’s a compelling and disturbing image: A white pioneer on horseback holding a rifle; he’s been wounded in the thigh by an arrow and, after what was no doubt a wild chase, has fatally shot the Native American with whom he’s had a confrontation. Ever defiant, the dying Native American weakly makes his last battle cry, while his horse looks towards the pioneer, confusion and anxiety on its face.
The title of the painting is “The Last War-Whoop,” created by the American-British artist Arthur F. Tait. While many may not recognize the name, nearly everyone will recognize his work. Tait painted images that would then be engraved by the American lithography company Currier and Ives.
Quintessentially American, Tait’s art (and mass-produced engravings based upon it) proved inspirational in how Americans understood themselves, their American culture and the West. Currier and Ives were to the late 1800s what Norman Rockwell would become to the mid-twentieth century — true Americana.
Imagine what must have gone through people’s minds when they first gazed upon this painting, how their life experiences during that rough-and-tumble time shaped their reactions. Now imagine how a child would digest the stark image.
In the last decade of the 1800s, a little boy named Raymond accompanies his father to work. His father, J.C. Bixby, is an Omaha plumber employed by Gen. Grenville Dodge.
It’s young Raymond’s first time in the Dodge mansion. He, like many first-time guests today, is astounded by the foyer, enraptured by the circular staircase, delighted by all fourteen rooms, and overwhelmed by the enormous third floor ballroom.
Then Raymond sees it. His eyes go wide as the painting of “The Last War-Whoop” stirs his explosive imagination. Remember, this is a time when little boys played “cowboys and Indians,” a time when so-called “dime novels” began to romanticize the West, and a time when the frontier was considered “closed.” America had entered a new, modern era.
While we do not know where, how or from whom Dodge acquired “The Last War-Whoop,” we can say that it is typical of some of the art Dodge collected. This image, just like the other Currier and Ives prints (which can be seen in the Dodge House to this day) show a life-and-death struggle between white pioneers and Native Americans. Given Dodge’s involvement in the Indian wars of the 1860s, we can understand his taste. He appreciated the image of the Last War-Whoop so much that he owned both this painting and a Currier and Ives print of it.
Yet, sometimes the best thing we can do is to share a favorite possession and inspire a young mind…
With a kindly heart, Dodge took the painting from the wall and presented it to Raymond’s father, J.C. Bixby. With the plumbing repairs completed, Dodge watched as the little boy stole glances from the painting under his father’s arm.
“The Last War-Whoop” would hang in J.C. Bixby’s Omaha plumbing office for over twenty years. The younger Bixby would take over his father’s plumbing business. Many years later, following Raymond Bixby’s retirement, the painting languished in his basement.
One evening, Raymond was reading the Saturday Evening Post, no doubt enjoying the images of Norman Rockwell, when he came across an article about the artwork of Currier and Ives. And, there it was, an image of his painting, “The Last War-Whoop.” Could it be an original Tait painting that Currier and Ives used to generate their popular prints? Or, is it a very skilled copy?
We don’t know quite yet, but if the painting is the genuine article, it’s good news for the Dodge House. If not, we one a very fortunately composed copy.
What we do know is that the younger Bixby donated the painting to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, where it once again, for many years, it was relegated to the basement. In 1992, when the art museum became aware of the painting’s place of origin, it returned the canvas to the Dodge House. For reasons unknown, it languished in the home’s basement for almost another 20 years.
Today, The “Last War-Whoop” is in the capable hands of restorers at the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha.
After over 100 years hanging in a plumbing office and then hiding in three different basements, “The Last War-Whoop” will return “home” to the Dodge House, where it will be on display for all to enjoy and contemplate.
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