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Elbridge Ayer Burbank, “Floral still-life of a

vase of purple violets”, oil on canvas, c.1930’s

Elbridge Ayer (E.A.) Burbank (1858-1949) was an extremely well-known artist when he painted this lovely small floral study. Burbank was known primarily for the outstanding and perceptive portraits of hundreds of prominent Native Americans which he had painted over the course of his very long career from the great Apache warrior, Geronimo to the renowned Oglala Sioux leader and statesman, Red Cloud, to Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and many, many others. He painted and drew the great majority of these famous warriors, chiefs and other indians from life which repeatedly took him back and forth to many far-flung locales across the American West for decades. He was encouraged and supported in these endeavors by his philanthropist and passionate art collector Uncle, Chicago business tycoon Edward Everett Ayer (1841-1927) who was one of the founders and the first President of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in the 1890’s.

And now for the really fascinating part of this particular story. Burbank painted this lovely little floral painting during the latter part of his life in his late 70’s while he was institutionalized in the 1930’s, most likely at the Napa California State Mental Hospital where he spent 10 years being treated for a severe bipolar disorder. In this regard, he was in very good artistic and historic company; many of his fellow artists from Vincent van Gogh, to Francisco Goya, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock were all hospitalized and treated for mental illness at one time or another during their lives.

This little picture is a particularly sensitive and particularly well-painted and evocative subject for Burbank; a just-picked fresh bouquet of beautiful purple spring violets likely brought to him in the hospital by a caring nurse or visitor on a California spring day. We have seen only one other floral painting by Burbank which interestingly enough appears to be of the exact same subject at essentially the exact same time, either the very same or a very similar bouquet of purple violets painted perhaps just a couple of days after this one when the violets were just beginning to wilt. This other painting is dated 1938 which corresponds to Burbank’s time in the Napa state Mental Hospital.

This small work was most expressively and emotionally rendered by Burbank with beautiful vibrant brushwork and a fine thick impasto. It is almost as if the subject matter and the circumstances combined in this painting to inspire Burbank to greater artistic power, it has an extra level of finesse and expressive quality which his earlier more characteristic works sometime lack. In this way, it is reminiscent in some aspects of the outstanding series of sixteen small floral paintings done at the very end of his life while bedridden by the great French impressionist, Edouard Manet (1832-1883). Manet painted many great paintings in his career, but these small florals are some of his very finest, most expressive and passionately felt works. 

“The flower paintings must have been painted very quickly, in one or at most two sessions. Each painted flower is a likeness. The freshness and directness of the painterly expression is one with the freshness of the flowers.”

                                                                                                                                                                                      -Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          “The Last Flowers of Manet” pp. 13

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      © 1986 Harry N. Abrams, New York   

The painting is done in oil on canvas and the painting itself measures 7” in height by 5” in width. The framed dimensions are 13” in height by 10” in width. The painting is properly signed “E.A. Burbank” at the lower left.

It is in very good original condition overall. There are a few very tiny nearly imperceptible separations in the weave of the canvas likely due to age and the tight stretching of the small thin canvas over the wooden stretcher bars. There is a remnant of what appears to be an old paper label on the back of the canvas.

The painting is very beautifully and most appropriately framed in a custom-made, gorgeously hand-carved, 22K gold gilded reproduction of a period Newcomb-Macklin Company frame, c.1920, made by Martin Horowitz of Goldleaf Framemakers of Santa Fe, Santa Fe’s premier fine art framers. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Newcomb-Macklin Company of Chicago and New York City was renowned far and wide as being the Rolls-Royce, so to speak, of American custom framemakers and this frame design is a classic and elegant Newcomb-Macklin molding which was used by many esteemed Southwestern artists, such as J.H. Sharp, in the first half of the 20th century whenever they could afford to purchase it to frame their finest paintings.

This painting is a lovely and somewhat bittersweet portrayal of a fleeting moment in time; fresh, beautiful, delicate spring flowers painted by a sensitive and highly-esteemed artist imprisoned in the terrible grip of

severe mental dysfunction; a moment of personal clarity perhaps and an intense desire to capture for all time with paint and brush the fragile, powerful, enduring beauty and freedom of nature as he had previously worked so diligently for so long to so honestly depict the dignity, bravery, intelligence and stoicism of so many of America’s greatest Native people.


Elbridge Ayer Burbank, 1904

Photo source and © Wikipedia.com

Edouard Manet, “Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase”, n.d.

Oil on canvas, 22” x 13 3/4”, Musee d’ Orsay, Paris.

Photo source: “The Last Flowers of Manet”, pp.37, © 1986 Harry N. Abrams, New York

Elbridge Ayer Burbank, “Floral Still Life with Violets”, 1938

Photo source and © AskArt.com

Photo source: “The Last Flowers of Manet”, © 1986 Harry N. Abrams, New York