CURTIS, Edward S. (1868-1952). The North American Indian being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. Foreword by Theodore Roosevelt. Field Research conducted under the patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan. [Cambridge, Mass.], 1907-1930.
CURTIS, Edward S. (1868-1952). The North American Indian being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. Foreword by Theodore Roosevelt. Field Research conducted under the patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan. [Cambridge, Mass.], 1907-1930.

CURTIS, Edward S. (1868-1952). The North American Indian being a Series of Volumes Picturing and Describing the Indians of the United States and Alaska. Edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. Foreword by Theodore Roosevelt. Field Research conducted under the patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan. [Cambridge, Mass.], 1907-1930.

Together 40 volumes: text in 20 volumes, 4o (313 x 239 mm); Supplementary Large Plates in 20 portfolios, large folio (582 x 239 mm). Text in original publisher's brown half morocco gilt, top edges gilt, others uncut, most stamp-signed by H. Blackwell. Portfolios in original half morocco, original cloth ties.

COMPLETE: Text volumes: 1,511 illustrations, comprising 1,505 photogravures, 4 maps and 2 diagrams. Portfolios: 723 photogravures in sepia on full sheets with deckle edges preserved (numbered 1-722 with two plates numbered 400); letterpress index leaves in each portfolio.

LIMITED EDITION, number 435 of 500 proposed sets (but probably only 272 sets produced), this copy on Japan vellum, volume one signed by Edward S. Curtis and dated 1907. The exact number of sets that were printed on Japan vellum is not known (see note below).


PROVENANCE: Ms. Emma Marburg, Baltimore, Maryland, original subscriber.

CONDITION: This copy is overall in exceptional condition, exhibiting none of the characteristic offsetting and tissue burn that is found in nearly all examined copies. The bindings are remarkably fresh and bright. A conscientious (and brief) list of defects may be summarized:

Text volumes: A few minor scuffs to spines.

Portfolio Plates: The plates are generally in exceptionally fine condition. Plate 291 in volume eight with some pale staining/foxing, mostly marginal. Plates 363-4 in volume ten with some very slight cockling, mostly marginal. Plate 400 in volume 12 with some minor dust soiling at outer sheet edge. Volume 14 with most tissue guards not present.

Portfolio Bindings: Volumes 13 and 14 with spines slightly sunned, ties on volume 14 slightly frayed, slightest rubbing to some extremities.

A COMPLETE SUBSCRIBER'S SET OF CURTIS'S MONUMENTAL WORK, The North American Indian, one of the most expensive undertakings in the history of book production and one of the most comprehensive ethnographic records of the native tribes of North America, or of any aboriginal people. According to author and critic A.D. Coleman, it is "an absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive and profound photograph works of all time" (Sacred Legacy: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, ed. Christopher Cardozo, NY, 2000, p.25). The North American Indian took 16 years longer to complete than projected, and exceeded its budget by nearly $1.4 million. Curtis's immense work contains one of the largest visual records of Native Americans in existence, produced in lavish style under the patronage of J. Pierpont Morgan.


Edward Sheriff Curtis was born in White Water, Wisconsin in 1868 but his great interest in American Indians developed after his family moved to Minnesota. Here, Curtis lived near the Chippewa, Menominee, and Winnebago tribes. Through instruction manuals available at the time, the teenage Curtis built crude cameras and taught himself the rudiments of photography. In 1887, the Curtises moved to Washington Territory in order to find a more temperate climate for Curtis's ailing father. There Edward Curtis encountered many of the Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The sudden death of his father left Curtis responsible for the family, and he provided for them by farming, fishing, digging clams and doing chores for neighbors. Throughout this time Curtis continued to hone his photographic skills and in 1891 purchased a share in a photographic studio for $150. This venture lasted less than a year, but Curtis soon formed a partnership with Thomas Guptill, building both a photographic and photograving studio in Seattle.

His first Indian portrait was taken in 1895--a portrait of "Princess Angeline," daughter of Chief Seattle (plate 314, portfolio IX). "I paid the princess a dollar for each picture I made," Curtis recalled many years later. "This seemed to please her greatly, and she indicated that she preferred to spend her time having pictures taken to digging clams." These early portraits of Princess Angeline fueled Curtis's interest in Indians, and soon he aspired to document Native American tribes through a large-scale project. In 1898, near tragedy dovetailed into good fortune when Curtis rescued several important naturalists and ethnologists from the peak of Mount Rainier: Gifford Pinchot, the Chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, C. Hart Merriam, the Chief of the U.S. Division of Biological Survey, and George Bird Grinnell, an acknowledged expert on Plains Indians and then the editor of Forest & Stream. Within two years, Curtis was invited to accompany Grinnell to Montana to study the Blackfoot and Algonquin and the following year he accompanied Merriam on the historic Harriman expedition to Alaska.

In 1904, his portrait skills came to the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose children Curtis photographed for "The Prettiest Children in America," a contest sponsored by the Ladies Home Journal. At the time of Roosevelt's second inaugural parade in 1906, Curtis took photographs of Geronimo and five other Indian chiefs on the White House lawn. Roosevelt was a loyal advocate of Curtis, and provided the Foreword to the first volume. In his Foreword, Roosevelt calls The North North American Indian "a service not only to our people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere" (vol. I, p.ix).


Curtis's design to document every Indian tribe west of the Mississippi was logistically ambitious, not to mention financially daunting. In a letter to George Bird King, he wrote: "It's such a big dream, I can't see it all" (quoted in Sacred Legacy, p.19). Knowing of his need for financial support, Roosevelt introduced Curtis to J. Pierpont Morgan. Impressed with Curtis's work, the formidable financier offered $75,000 for a series on the North American Indian to contain 1,500 photographs in 20 volumes. Morgan was to receive 25 sets and 300 prints. Work began with the printing of the photogravures handled by John Andrew & Son and The Suffolk Engraving Company; the text was printed by The University Press in Cambridge and the Plimpton Press in Norwood, Mass.

The first volume appeared in 1907 to a favorable review in The New York Herald, which called it "the most gigantic undertaking in the making of books since the King James edition of the Bible." Morgan died in 1913, just before the completion of the ninth volume. Curtis added a tribute to his benefactor, which also served as a recapitulation of his own motives: "The fact that he was so able to comprehend this meant the rendering of a service to the world of art and literature of much value. It meant a substantial and comprehensive addition to the documentary knowledge possessed by the human race" (vol. IX, p. [ix]). Morgan and his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr. eventually provided at least half of the total $1.5 million it took to complete the work, but the debts which remained crippled Curtis's business. Soon after volumes 19 and 20 were completed in 1930, his North American Indian Company went bankrupt, after failing to sell enough subscriptions to pay the printing costs. The photogravure printing plates and all other artifacts became the property of Curtis's creditors, the printing companies and publishers he used. The plates were rediscovered in 1977 at the Lauriat Bookshop and were purchased by The Curtis Collection in 1982.


The process of making photogravures was developed in the 1850s as a means to produce a photographic image from an engraving plate. Once a photograph is exposed, a glass transparency is made from the negative. A series of chemical transfers to a copper plate produces an etched copper plate of the original photographic image. From 1896 to 1930 Curtis photographed every major Native American tribe west of the Mississippi, taking over 40,000 negatives of 80 tribes. Curtis selected just one twentieth of his graphic record to represent his artistic vision of North American tribes.

The 500 sets planned were never completed. An estimated 272 sets were finished, many of which have been broken up, while an estimated 85 remain in institutional collections. Three issues were produced: one printed on Van Gelder paper; another on Japan vellum, like the present; and another on Japanese tissue. 40 sets were issued on tissue and the remaining sets were split relatively evenly between vellum and Van Gelder, with many sets exhibiting a mixture of two or more types. The present set is printed entirely on Japan vellum.


As Curtis intended, The North American Indian is more than a series of breath-taking photographs. Its text collects a massive array of ethnographic information ranging from analyses of social hierarchies, geography, sociology, warfare, ceremonies, musicology, costume and mythology. Roosevelt wrote in his Foreword: "In Mr. Curtis we have both an artist and a trained observer, whose pictures are pictures, not merely photographs; whose work has far more than mere accuracy, because it is truthful" (vol I., p.xi).

Though his scholarship was self-taught, Curtis presents a view of the Indian, and of America itself, that is at once expansive and intimate. As he wrote in his Introduction: "While primarily a photographer, I do not see or think photographically; hence the story of Indian life will not be told in microscopic detail, but rather will be presented as a broad and luminous picture" (vol. I, p.xv). Just as Roosevelt had used the double-meaning of "picture" in his foreword, Curtis here contrasts the visual and written portrait, as well as those things which are seen in nature, and those things which are seen and crafted by the artist.

In the judgment of Hans Christian Adam, Curtis's "photographic oeuvre not only ties in with our traditional idea of the North American Indian, but has largely moulded this idea. Curtis's photographs show Indians as they might once have been--or, rather, as we might wish them to have been" (Hans Christian Adam, Edward Sheriff Curtis, Cologne, 1999, p.23). The scholar of Native American history, N. Scott Momaday, similarly notes: "Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession" (Sacred Legacy, p.9). Curtis's life-work stands as one of the monuments of American photography, illustrated-book production, and the landscape and people that it depicts are captured in strikingly dramatic fashion.

REFERENCES: Howes C-965; Roosens & Salu 2702; Truthful Lens 40. (40)

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