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Narcissa Chisholm Owen

Narcissa Chisholm Owen was born on October 3, 1831, in Webbers Falls, Arkansas Indian Territory (now called Oklahoma), and died on July 11, 1911. Gilcrease Museum houses three of her portraits: Rebecca McNair Swain (01.1462), John Swain (01.1946), and William Wilson (01.1463). The daughter of an Old Settler Cherokee Chief, Thomas Chisholm, she was descended from wealthy, Ivy League–educated, slave-owning farmers who claimed both Cherokee and Scottish lineage. During childhood, Owen witnessed the United States military forcibly remove the Cherokee Nation people from their ancestral territories into Indian Territory in an action later called the Trail of Tears (1836–39). She first attended the College for Young Ladies in New Albany, Indiana; later Owen attended Miss Sawyer’s Female Seminary in Fayetteville, Arkansas, graduating with majors in art and music. In 1853, she married Robert Latham Owen, a railway surveyor, and began a teaching career; they had two sons. Her husband was a colonel in the Confederate army during the Civil War. They eventually moved to Virginia, where he died in 1873.

Now a widow, Owen in 1880 relocated to Indian Territory—where the Trail of Tears came to an end—and resumed her career in education after receiving a position at the Cherokee Female Seminary in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. There she became acquainted with many Cherokee Nation citizens, some of whom would become the subjects of her portraits. Owen’s artwork flourished during this period, and at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition she received a medal and diploma for her paintings. Hailed as “the Mother of Cherokee painting,”1 Narcissa Chisholm Owen was one of the earliest female Cherokee painters to incorporate a Western art practice and aesthetics. Her contemplative, tenebrist portraits and landscapes depict their predominantly Cherokee subjects through a distinct lens of Western artistic techniques.

“Art is always transforming. Cherokee people have always been artists with the ability to adapt and change throughout the years of colonization.”3 —Joleen Scott

—Jordan Poorman Cocker, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2021


1 Shaffer, “Narcissa and Robert Owen,” 165.
2 Synar, “Remember the Ladies.
3 Scott, “Shaping Cherokee Art with America Meredith,” 6.