By Suzanne Waring
The facial lines of Indigenous people tell us of their arduous history. Their native ceremonial clothing indicates that they also celebrated life. F. Winold Reiss traveled to Montana because he wanted to document the bygone days of the Blackfeet people by painting their portraits in their native dress. After reading stories by German writer Karl May and the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper as a child, Reiss never let go of a fascination with the American Indians.
Born in 1886, Reiss grew up in Germany, the son of a skilled painter. In 1913 at the age of twenty-seven, he came to the United States for the major purpose of painting the native people of America. He landed in New York City and remained nearby the rest of his life by buying a farm in New York State, but he made at least ten trips to Montana, to get to know, to become friends with, and to paint portraits of the Indigenous people living in northcentral Montana.
Using his style of bold colors and distinct lines, Reiss first made a living by illustrating for magazines and designing Art Deco commercial interiors. It wasn’t until 1920 that he made his first trip to Browning, Montana. No doubt he knew that he was in rural America when he got off the train in a snowstorm at the desolate little station and made his way into town a mile away.
“He understood that he was to be bold, walk up and slap the person on the back, and introduce himself, so that is what he did. Several men were standing on the sidewalk that first morning, so Reiss put out his hand to the tallest man standing in the group and then told the man who turned out to go by the name of Turtle that he was a painter. Turtle politely told him that his house did not need painting,” said Peter Reiss, Winold’s grandson, who reiterated this story. The confusion was cleared up, but the Blackfeet were at first reluctant to pose for Reiss because encounters with white people often led to ridicule.
Eventually, the two men became friends, and Reiss painted several poses of him over the years. Turtle also introduced Reiss to others who were willing to
be models for Reiss’ paintings. Reiss sought out warriors and holy men and women, some who had lived during the years that buffalo were hunted from horseback. From the beginning, Reiss communicated that he wanted to help future Indigenous people remember their heritage by creating a permanent living memorial to them. This purpose struck a chord with many members of the tribe.
Reiss was impressed with the Blackfeet’s sense of color, pattern, and design, and he adopted a mixed media of pastel and tempera to reproduce the bright, rich, and pure color of the clothing and regalia of those who sat for him. He produced not only history but great art.
Reiss met Louis W. Hill, James J. Hill, the railroad tycoon’s grandson, who commissioned him to do portraits of the Blackfeet for the Great Northern Railroad. Some of the paintings went into a permanent collection and others became promotional materials as calendars, brochures, and dining menus. They advertised the railroad by promoting the Natives who lived adjacent to Glacier Park where the railroad owned hotels and chalets. Under commission with the Great Northern Railroad, Reiss painted at least eighty portraits of the Blackfeet over the next thirty years, beginning in 1927.
Peter Reiss recalled learning one aspect of his grandfather’s personality when the two were alone one day. “When I was around nine years old, I joined my grandfather who held a blueprint. He drew with colored pencils pictures of the “Little People” of Germany that are called ‘Kobolds.’ Grandpa Reiss drew the Kobolds under a toadstool, and they were harshly teasing one another. The essence of the characterization in the picture brought out advice he gave his grandson, “Young man, jealousy always becomes overpowering to the person who is jealous. Never allow yourself to become jealous.” This bit of advice Peter remembered and took to heart as one of the premises for living his own life.
Intensely aware of the aesthetic value of Winold’s art, Peter Reiss has given his collection of his grandfather’s works to the C.M. Russell Museum so that not only the Blackfeet but all visitors to the museum can view it.
“I never thought that the paintings that I had were really mine. It was important that I gift them to the museum in the heart of Blackfeet country for others to see,” said Peter Reiss recently.
According to C. M. Russell Museum Associate Director Brenda Kornick, “We have thirty in the collection and twenty- six were given to the museum by Peter and Christina Reiss in 1986. Tjark Reiss [Winold’s son] donated three and Dr. Fred Hasegawa donated one.”
This collection of art is on display until September 25 at the C.M. Russell Museum located at 400 Thirteenth Street North in Great Falls.
Also available for viewing is a collection of nine of Reiss’s original pastel portraits at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, until October 29, 2022. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Foundation generously lent most of the portraits in this exhibition to the museum. The museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Photographic reproductions of the paintings by Suzanne Waring