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Rebecca McNair Swain / Narcissa Chisholm Owen


The sitter, Rebecca “Becky” McNair Swain née Polston (1864–1947), was an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. She was an alumna of the Cherokee Female Seminary (near present-day Tahlequah, Oklahoma), the first institution for higher education west of the Mississippi,1 and she went on to become a teacher.

The artist, Narcissa Chisholm Owen (Cherokee), taught at the Female Seminary beginning in 1880 and first met her subject there. Chisholm Owen often painted subjects from her own associates and social circle, such as Rebecca and her husband, John Swain (01.1946).2 This portrait captures Euro-American women’s fashion of the 1880s. The styles of the garments were derived from menswear, and they were a standard worn by the new post–Civil War era female workforce. Here, Chisholm Owen dramatically illuminates Swain’s brightly colored lapels and five-pointed star brooch. The deep-bronze high-collared shirtwaist, worn with a matching waistcoat, was a popular ensemble for female educators in 1890s America.

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


1 Smith, Leadership Lessons from the Cherokee Nation.
2 Gilcrease Museum holds the John W. Swain Manuscript Collection, including a letter from U.S. Senator Robert L. Owen, the artist’s son, to Rebecca McNair Swain, and a letter from Principal Chief D. W. Bushyhead to Rebecca McNair Swain.

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Rebecca McNair Swain
Narcissa Chisholm Owen (Artist)
Native American; Cherokee
late 19th century
oil on canvas
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
TL1957; 0126.1462; 33364
Not On View

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