Based upon James Fenimore Cooper's book of the same title from 1826, Emanuel Leutze's The Last of the Mohicans is a powerful, iconic image of an Indian warrior. Cooper's book defined a dying culture, and its epic sweep inspired the leading artists of the following generation to create heroic interpretations of the plot including this present, extraordinary example.
The story of The Last of the Mohicans is set in the British province of New York during the French and Indian War, and relates to a massacre at a colonial fort and the fictional kidnapping of the Munro sisters, who were the daughters of the commander of Fort William Henry. The narrative centers on Hawkeye and his Mohican companions, Chingachgook and Uncas, who were escorting the two sisters, the dark-haired Cora and the blonde Alice, through the woods of New York to Fort William Henry. The group endures violent conflict along the way by the Huron tribe, led by Magua. The book ends in tragedy, with Uncas and Cora perishing, and Magua killed by Hawkeye. Cooper developed his tale based on existing writings and his imagination. However, the history of the bitter, vengeful Magua, who was once beaten and humiliated by Colonel Munro, shows deep understanding of the treatment of captives by the Indian tribes. Cooper's writing on the Native Americans shows a deep sympathy for their culture, inspiring some of the most compelling images of the American frontier created in the nineteenth century. Notable was Thomas Cole, who brought to life several episodes from the tale including The Last of the Mohicans (1826, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois, fig. 1).
In the present work, Leutze depicts Uncas in contemplation on a rocky outcrop overlooking an expansive landscape. His body is erect and his arms are folded with tomahawk in hand. Fire burns in the distance, the destructive aftermath of a recent bloody battle. Uncas gazes in the direction of the fire, surveying the devastation and struggling internally with the events of the day. Uncas must face the tragedy, yet he does so with great strength and concentration of thought. The Last of the Mohicans embodies the theme of man embraced by nature. Viewed from below, Uncas appears larger than life, with the expanse of undeveloped land serving as a background to the iconic hero. The painting is imbued with a soft pink glow of the setting sun. This light, which leads the viewer through a complete and skillfully rendered scene, contributes to a sense of spiritual quietude associated with the melancholy of Uncas' predicament.
Leutze's The Last of the Mohicans is not only a successful portrayal of Uncas, the tragic hero of Cooper's book, but also a symbol for the people of this great, vanishing race. The painting calls to mind the solitary Native American figures in works such as George Caleb Bingham's The Concealed Enemy (1845, Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, fig. 2). Both paintings exemplify the strength and character of the Native Americans depicted by the artists and writers of the nineteenth century. Leutze's portrayal of a Native American, however, is not as a threatening presence, as in Bingham's work, but as an heroic even noble ideal.
The Last of the Mohicans is a sympathetic and masterfully executed depiction of one of the most identifiable stories in the chronicles of American literature. Leutze's skilled and thoughtful composition eloquently captures James Fennimore Cooper's literary vision, and ranks among the best artistic representations of the lost culture of Native Americans.