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The North American Indian: “An absolutely unmatched masterpiece of visual anthropology, and one of the most thorough, extensive and profound photograph works of all time.” – A. D. Coleman

CURTIS, EDWARD S. The North American Indian

Cambridge, 1907-1930

Printed on Van Gelder paper. 20 quarto text volumes in original half morocco (complete with 1505 photogravures, 4 maps and 2 diagrams) and 20 large portfolio plate volumes in original morocco and cloth chemises (complete with 723 photogravures). Minor wear to bindings, some offsetting. An excellent set. Portfolios in custom half morocco cases.

First edition of this landmark of American photography, art, printing, history, and ethnography. This is one of about 272 sets printed and one of the few surviving complete sets in private hands.

This is the most important ethnographic work on American Indians and a fundamental document of American history and culture. Beginning in 1900 Curtis spent more than three decades photographing and documenting the lives and cultures of more than eighty American Indian tribes ranging from the Inuit people of the far north to the Hopi people of the Southwest.

The North American Indian was an artistic and intellectual triumph. Theodore Roosevelt called it “a service not only to our people but to scholarship everywhere.” More than a collection of some of the most famous American photographs ever, the work was one of the great ethnological studies ever undertaken. Historian N. Scott Momaday wrote, “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.”

The project was inspired by Curtis’s reflection that, “The passing of every old man or woman means the passage of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rite possessed by no other; consequently, the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the modes of life of one of the greatest races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.”

The enormous undertaking, which cost more than $1.5 million, was supported by J. P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and many others. Still Curtis could not sell enough subscriptions to pay for the project, which resulted in bankruptcy.

Opportunities for private ownership of Curtis’s masterwork are rare as most copies have long been institutionalized. Indeed it is estimated that 85% of the sets are in institutions and the majority of the remaining sets have been broken up in order to sell the fabulous individual plates for display.

This is an excellent set of one of the monumental works in American art.

Provenance: Museum of the American Indian, predecessor of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, deaccessioned, with unobtrusive marking on verso of plates.

Truthful Lens 40.

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