48 Degrees North

Winold Reiss and the Blackfeet

Of the many pieces of art commissioned by the railroad, Winold Reiss’ portraits remain among the most famous

By Justin Franz
"Turtle" by Winold Reiss. Image courtesy of BNSF Railway Foundation

Winold Reiss was a German-born portrait painter fascinated with the American West and especially the Indians who called it home. So fascinated, in fact, that in 1913 he moved to America in hopes of painting the people he had read so much about in books like “Leatherstocking Tales” and “Wild West” as a kid. But when he arrived in New York City he was dismayed to find there weren’t many Indians there. So he started working — painting and teaching — until he saved up enough money to head west to Browning in 1919, where he spent a few weeks painting portraits of Blackfeet Tribal elders. When he returned east, he put the work on display and it became an overnight sensation, capturing the attention of a number of art collectors, including Louis W. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway. In those days, Hill was working hard to promote Glacier National Park, which offered a reason for people buy tickets aboard Hill’s trains. The president of the railroad hired Reiss to paint more portraits of the Blackfeet for use on calendars, postcards and other marketing material. Of the many pieces of art commissioned by the railroad, Reiss’ portraits remain among the most famous. 

Many of those paintings are still owned by the railroad today — now known as BNSF Railway — and this summer eight of those pieces will be on display at the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. Renee Bear Medicine, curator of the exhibit, said that along with the original Reiss paintings there will be artifacts on display pertaining to the tribal members depicted in the portraits. Bear Medicine said that she hopes the exhibit will highlight the many contributions the Blackfeet made to promoting Glacier Park during its earliest years. 

“Our people’s role in promoting tourism in Glacier National Park has often been overlooked,” she said. 

The exhibit will run through September 27. The Museum of the Plains Indian is located in Browning at 19 Museum Loop and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The exhibit, titled “Connections: The Blackfeet and Winold Reiss,” was curated by Bear Medicine and Heather Caverhill and was made possible by a partnership between the Museum of the Plains Indian, BNSF Railway Foundation and Glacier National Park Conservancy. 

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