We often tend to think of beauty as something self-evident, and we often assume that we simply know beauty when we see it. This may be true in many ways, but fashions in beauty change over time and according to culture. For instance, throughout most of the nineteenth century, pale-skinned brunette women were considered the standard of beauty, and this section includes just a few examples of this ideal. It was only after the Civil War that blonde very slowly began to replace brunette as the most highly prized coloring for women.

Whiteness of skin was considered part of the baseline standard of female beauty in the nineteenth century. Representations of any but the palest of subjects were extremely rare. But images of American Indian and African American women were occasionally published.
Here, we have six images that tell us something about how American Indian and African American women were imagined. Although the American Indian women depicted here are distinctive for their brown skin and tribal dress, the artists have stylized their facial features to conform to the European-American artistic standards of beauty that Alexander Walker discussed in his book Beauty (1840). 


The Indian Dye. c. 1830–1833

This advertising image is typical of the romantic artistic depictions of American Indian women that prevailed in European and American art throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As whites expanded westward in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and real-life Indians were pushed ever closer to the brink of extinction, popular authors and artists romanticized American Indians. Perhaps the most famous example of this trend is James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans.

The young woman represented in this print is entirely imaginary. Her feathered headdress, flowing hair, simple clothing, and bare breasts are not authentic details but, rather, evocations of an idealized feminine sexuality in the form of a cultural Other. The outdoor setting, her presumed expertise and athletic skill as an archer, and the freedom with which her hair flows behind her all suggest a way of life that many middle-class Americans, tightly bound by oppressive social prescriptions, found to be a potent and pleasing fantasy. Her loose hair and exposed physique suggest more sensual and intimate pleasures. Her graceful form and gestures fit the classical European artistic standards of beauty and representations of women. The allure of the image was meant to help consumers associate the advertised product with all of these implied pleasures, not to mention the simple pleasure of looking.

Detail from Indian Dye c. 1830-3. 46 x 29 cm


Charles Bird King's American Indian women:

The two images below are drawn after a remarkable series painted by Charles Bird King between 1821 and 1842. King lived in Washington, D.C., and painted portraits of over one hundred American Indian delegates who visited the national capital over that twenty-one-year period. Albert Hoffy created lithographic copies of the paintings, which were published in a three-volume folio set entitled History of the Indian Tribes of North America. 1 Later, many of these lithographs were reproduced as unbound, stand-alone prints. Unlike most of the romanticized images of American Indians that proliferated in the United States, King's portraits attempted to render his subjects with a much higher degree of accuracy. Still, the American Indian women of these two prints still conform to Euro-American ideals of beauty and femininity.

Hayne-Hudjihini. Alfred M. Hoffy, c. 1838

Hayne-Hudjihini (English speakers translated her name as "Eagle of Delight") was a member of the Otoe tribe. In 1821, she accompanied her husband on a visit to Washington, D.C.; he was one of sixteen American Indian emissaries who visited the White House in that year. This portrait is based on one of twenty-one portraits of these emissaries, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

More than a commemorative portrait, this kind of image would have appealed to Americans for the romantic notions of Indian life that it suggested—and for its exotic appeal. This image is part of a nineteenth-century trend to romanticize American Indians and reinterpret their existence and history in terms that allowed viewers to admire the subject's beauty rather than focus on their purported savagery or barbarism.

Note: multiple copies of this painting exist, click here to see known locations

Detail from Hayne-Hudjihini c. 1838. 37 x 26 cm


Mo-hon-go an Osage woman. c. 1838.

The authors of History of the Indian Tribes of North America wrote that Mo-hon-go was "interesting on account of the dignity and beauty of her countenance, and the singular nature of her adventures since her marriage.” Mo-hon-go became famous for these adventures, which unfolded after she and six other Osage were lured to France in 1827 “to be part of a travelling show. “ She and her tribesmen “were decoyed from the borders of Missouri, by an adventurer, whose intention was to exhibit them in Europe, for the purpose of gain." The unscrupulous promoter who brought the group to France had said he was taking them only as far as Washington, D.C., to meet the president. Once in France, the promoter abandoned the group.

According to the authors of History of the Indian Tribes of North America, when Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, learned of the Osage group’s plight, he paid for their return passage to the United States. On the way home, three of the Osage died of smallpox, including Mo-hon-go's husband. The surviving Osage were received in Washington in 1830 (and had their portraits painted by King) before returning to their home in Missouri.

Authors Thomas McKenney and James Hall compared this print of Mo-hon-go with other depictions of American Indian women and found her particularly appealing. The print, they wrote, was “a faithful and striking representation” of this woman who, for them, represented a superior Indian womanhood. They wrote that “[t]he ordinary expression of the countenance of the Indian woman, is subdued and unmeaning,” but “that of Mohongo is lighted up with intelligence. It is joyous as well as reflective.…The Indian woman is rather the servant than the companion of man. She is a favourite and confidential servant, who is treated with kindness, but who is still an inferior.”2 Mo-hon-go’s feminine consciousness was elevated by her segregation from her tribe and, they suggested, by her introduction to French society, with its culture of reason. According to McKenney and Hall, Mo-hon-go,

“[e]scaped from servile labour, [and] she had leisure to think. … [T]hat beautiful system of association which forms the train of rational thought, became connected and developed. Mohongo was no longer the drudge of a savage hunter, but his friend. Such are the influences which seem to be fairly deductible, when contrasting the agreeable expression of this countenance, with the stolid lineaments of other females of the same race. If our theory be correct, the example before us affords a significant and beautiful illustration of the beneficent effects of civilisation upon the human mind.” 3

Detail from Mo-hon-go an Osage woman
c. 1838. 37 x 25 cm


Poor Oppressed; or, the Contraband Schottisch.
J. Slinglandt, c. 1861

The “contraband” to which the title refers were African Americans who escaped from their slave masters during the Civil War. This image also reflects the American tradition of blackface minstrelsy, which was the most popular form of entertainment at the time. Minstrelsy relied on depictions of American blacks as lazy, incompetent, idiotic, and ridiculous, and a nineteenth-century viewer would have applied that understanding to viewing this image.

The cover indicates that this sheet music is dedicated to Dinah Dobson of Nashville, Tennessee, but Miss Dobson was probably a figment of the publisher's imagination. Dinah was the name given to a number of standard female minstrel characters who frequently served as the female counterpart of Dandy Jim in both literary and theatrical productions. Jim and Dinah represent two of the most popular nineteenth-century caricatures of African Americans. Jim was laughable because of his pretensions to high fashion and social betterment. Dinah was a forerunner of the “mammy” caricature, an idea of black womanhood that persisted in American culture well into the twentieth century. [The mammy’s most famous incarnations include roles played by the Hollywood actress Hattie McDaniel in the 1930s (her most famous role was as Mammy in Gone with the Wind).] For nineteenth-century American viewers, this dedication to a “Dinah Dobson” would probably have sparked an association with Jim and Dinah of minstrel performances and the printed page.

On stage, female blackface characters were always played by men, and this image is probably meant to suggest that the woman is actually a man—and possible even a Confederate soldier in disguise.

Detail from Poor Oppressed; or, the Contraband Schottisch c. 1861.
35.5 x 27.5 cm


Emma (Reina de las islas Sandwich). Jacques Francois Gauderique Llanta, c. 1856–1864.

This is a portrait of Queen Emma of Hawaii (also known in the nineteenth century as the Sandwich Islands), who reigned from 1856 until 1874. Her dress and coiffure demonstrate the powerful influence of English and European culture on nineteenth-century Hawaiian elites and are outward evidence of Queen Emma's personal identification with her contemporary, Queen Victoria of England. The name Oceania (seen inscribed at the top of this print) was frequently used to denote the entire southern Pacific region, extending as far west as the Philippines and Indonesia and as far south as Australia and New Zealand, with Hawaii marking the northern boundary.

Detail from Emma c. 1856-64. 26 x 19 cm



1. McKenney, Thomas L., and James Hall. The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred and twenty portraits, from the Indian gallery in the Department of war, Philadelphia, E. C. Biddle (1836–1844). Available here.

2. McKenney and Hall, The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, vol. 1 (1836), pp. 22.

3. McKenney and Hall, The History of the Indian Tribes of North America, vol. 1 (1836), pp. 22-23.  


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