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John Swain / Narcissa Chisholm Owen


The sitter, John Swain,1 was the husband of Cherokee Nation citizen Rebecca McNair Swain (01.1462). He was connected to artist Narcissa Chisholm Owen (Cherokee) through his wife’s friendship with her. Swain wears a formal version of the 1890s men’s frock coat layered over a matching black waistcoat. These were worn with a white, stiff, standing-collar shirt with turned-down wingtips and a black necktie. Swain’s shirt is adorned with a small, brass-colored pin in a floral design with red petals. This luminous tenebrist2 portrait of Swain is one of the earlier portrait paintings of a young Cherokee man in pre-Oklahoma Indian Territory.

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


1 Gilcrease Museum holds the John W. Swain Manuscript Collection, including Swain’s 1882 Cherokee Enrollment certificate.

2 The tenebrist painting style originated in Italy; it is known for stark contrasts between light and shadow, occasionally referred to as dramatic illumination. The word comes from the Italian tenebroso, “dark, gloomy, mysterious.”

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John Swain
Narcissa Chisholm Owen (Artist)
Native American; Cherokee
late 19th century
oil on canvas
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
TL1957; 0127.1946; 14062
Not On View

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