A recent article in the Albany Times Union, “The Enduring Mystery of a Mohawk Warrior Bust at the Capitol,” (online edition, July 22, 2022) noted that there is a sculpted face of Joseph Brant on the exterior of the State Capitol building in Albany, New York.
Researched and written by journalist Chris Carola, it questions why Brant, a Native American who supported the British during the American Revolution – and who wreaked havoc on a number of white settlements – was honored by having his visage on such a prominent edifice.
My initial efforts to research the matter yielded very little. A 1943 book, Forts and Firesides of the Mohawk Country, New York, written by John L. Vrooman, made a brief mention of the Brant sculpture: “His [Brant’s] sculptured head is one of two which adorn the facade of the Capitol of New York State at Albany, the other being Hudson.”
The October 7th, 1909 edition of the Albany Argus referenced the likeness of Brant, but the article gave more treatment to the relief of Henry Hudson, both of which were the work of John F. Brines–”one of the bright young artists who were befriended by Architect and Capitol Commissioner Isaac G. Perry.” The sculpture of Hudson had been “festooned” with laurel when the Capitol was decorated for the big Hudson-Fulton Celebration. The image of Brant – who, after all, had no connection to Hudson nor Robert Fulton’s steamboat – remained unfestooned.
Carola’s article was amended after employees at the New York Office of General Services contacted him, reporting that they had found an old newspaper article, from 1902, which mentioned the carvings and also identified the sculptor as John F. Brines. I was able to find an old newspaper article that indicated that the Brant relief was designed, and probably carved, several years prior to 1902.
The Albany Argus, on September 17th, 1897 observed that: “Sculptor Brines who has designed much of the artistic work in the Capitol,. has completed two models for his reliefs of heroic dimensions to be placed beneath the dormer windows just above the highest landing on the new approach. The head of Joseph Brant, a famous chief of the Six Nations, is a remarkably fine study.”
Brines, it said, had sought out images of Brant so that his model would be authentic. He consulted “musty tomes” from the NY State Library, and found old engravings and paintings that depicted Brant. The item, which concentrated on the Brant piece, barely mentioned the Hudson one: “The other bas-relief is of Henry Hudson.”
Armed with the artist’s name, I was able to learn quite a bit about the man whom newspapers often simply called “Sculptor Brines.” A book that includes information on sculptors, Animal & Sporting Artists in America, by F. Turner Reuter, Jr., published in 2008, provided minimal information on Brines.
It said that John Francis Brines was born in Westerly, Rhode Island on June 30, 1860, and incorrectly stated that he was a resident of New York City in 1915 (Brines passed away in 1905, though he had been living in the metropolitan area). “Little information is available on his life and education.” (It has been my experience that, generally, little information is available on any historical matter – until one looks for it.)
Biographical material on Brines may be missing from reference books, but newspaper articles published during his lifetime discussed his rather interesting background. An article in a Rhode Island newspaper (“A Young Sculptor’s Work,” Providence Evening Bulletin, May 6, 1886) told of a work by Brines, then on public display: a bust of a United States Senator from Rhode Island, Henry B. Anthony. Anthony, who had died in 1884, served in the Senate for 25 years, and was known as the “Father of the Senate.” Anthony readily made use of political maneuverings to achieve his objectives, and was the first Senator to vote “guilty” when President Andrew Johnson was impeached.
Brines’ piece of statuary, said the Bulletin, was “distinguished in subject and somewhat interesting in history.” Though the depiction of Anthony was not perfect, there was “a glimmer of creative genius visible in the work.” Young Brines, a son of John Brines, was a native of Westerly and had attended the common schools there. His father worked as a granite cutter, and the son apprenticed at a large granite works in Rhode Island. He later worked for various firms, including one at Hartford, Connecticut, and it was there that he developed expertise in clay modeling. As time went on, he became adept at creating sculpted portraitures.
More about Brines was related in an article that appeared in the New York Times on July 26, 1896 (attributed to the Albany Journal). Brines, it said, had been a “poor boy” at Westerly, Rhode Island who had gone to work in a woolen mill when only nine-years-old. But, using clay from fields near his home as his medium, “he would mold whatever his childish fancy dictated.” A few years later, he worked as a water carrier at the quarry where his father was a stone cutter. To the delight of his father, Brines took up the chisel and began making “rough stone figures that demonstrated that some day he would make his mark.” When his son reached the age of 18, the father arranged for Brines to study with Carl Conrads, whose works include a statue of Alexander Hamilton in Central Park, and one of General Sylvanus Thayer at West Point.
Brines worked with Conrads, at the New England Granite Works in Hartford, Connecticut, for six years, undoubtedly learning a great deal, then set out on his own, working in Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., Providence, and Boston. In about 1892, while visiting in Albany, he met Isaac G. Perry, the man charged with completing the Capitol building. He was looking to have a particular piece done, and gave Brines the assignment. Perry was very impressed, and asked Brines if he would be able to create new designs and oversee the stone-cutting process. Brines, expressing his ability to do these things, accepted Perry’s offer.
This 32-year-old artist was so capable, Perry ended the previous practice of obtaining models from Boston, and instead had Brines take over all the modeling work. “All of the finer pieces of work found at the Capitol are original with Mr. Brines,” per the article carried in the Times. Brines had what was probably a big advantage when it came to the work on the edifice, because “he is not only a clay modeler, but a cutter of marble and granite as well, a combination rarely found in sculptors.”
For the Capitol, Brines created not only portraits – of men such as literary greats William Cullen Bryant, Shakespeare, Milton and Longfellow–but also works representing concepts: Liberty, Agriculture, Manufactures, Mechanics, and Industry. Ethnic groups were included with representations of “the American Indian,” and “the Afro-American.” All these were “original characterizations of Mr. Brines.”
Women were not left out, either. Brines’ representation of Fame featured a woman blowing a bugle and holding a laurel wreath. Fortune had a female pouring coins from a horn of plenty, while holding Mercury’s wand.
A work-in-progress in 1896 was “Hudson Trading with the Manhattan Indians,” to be mounted in the Assembly parlor. Also being crafted was “War and Peace,” consisting of four panels planned for the Capitol’s western staircase. An article in the Oswego Daily Palladium, on April 20, 1898, reported on the completion of the Grand Eastern Approach to the Capitol, declaring it a “magnificent monument in solid granite to the architectural skill and taste of Mr. I. G. Perry and to the artistic sculpturing of Mr. J. F. Brines.” The front of the building is described in some detail, but there is no mention of the heads of Hudson and Brant. But, “all over this grand structure are carved smaller faces, some beautiful and some hideous.” Visitors willing to spend an hour examining the stonework would exclaim “Excelsior.”
While in Albany, Brines seemed to fit in well with the community. He taught classes at the Y.M.C.A., on subjects like free-hand drawing and clay modeling. On at least one occasion, he served as a judge for an art competition for local schoolchildren. And he and his wife, Fannie (whom he had married in Providence, Rhode Island in 1889) were among the “young married folk” who participated in a dancing class consisting of “popular young people” (Albany Argus, April 30, 1898).
The item from 1909, cited above, recalled that Brines “had many friends around the Capitol who remember his unassuming ways and admired his great talent.” The sculptor thought enough of the capital city that he arranged for some stone cutters from Rhode Island to come over to work on the Capitol project. One, Richard Brines, who was listed in the Albany city directory, was undoubtedly his brother, as men with both names appeared as sons of John Brines (the elder) in the 1880 census for Westerly.
The 1896 newspaper article that profiled Brines noted that “he is a modest man,” who only reluctantly would “talk about himself or his work.” A short biography of him, prepared by his wife (A Sketch of the Life of John Francis Brines, Sculptor, by Fannie G. Brines, undated, but published some years after his death) spoke positively about his personality (as a wife could be expected to do). “Few,” she wrote, “could match his wit and charm.” He was a kind and considerate man, known to many simply as “Jack Brines.”
When the Capitol’s stone artwork was finished, Brines undertook some other projects in the Capital District, and elsewhere. His local works include a Celtic cross located at the Hamilton family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery, marble figures on a bank building, some stonework at the Masonic Temple, and – especially noteworthy – the likeness of Civil War general Joseph Bradford Carr on his monument in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery.
A major work by Brines was a statue of Edward Austin Sheldon, an educator known for his involvement with the State Normal School at Oswego. The creation of the sculpture was funded by small contributions made by thousands of children around the state. Brines was chosen as the sculptor, and he crafted it in 1899 in France, while he and his wife were on a European trip. In January 1900, the memorial to Sheldon was dedicated at a ceremony in the Assembly chamber. Governor Theodore Roosevelt accepted it on behalf of the state, and personally performed the unveiling.
The statue’s placement was not ideal, however. At first it stood in an obscure location in the Capitol where few people ever saw it. Then it was moved to a hallway which had a lot of foot traffic.
Unfortunately, being in the Capitol, those who saw it were unaware of its connection to education. The statue depicted the bearded Sheldon and a young student, and a number of people who gazed at it mistakenly thought it was Abraham Lincoln with his son Tad.
Educator Charles R. Skinner noted that problem in remarks before the convocation of the University of the State of New York in 1917. He stated his opinion that the Sheldon piece was “entirely out of place.”
Though thousands of people saw it, “they do not know what it means. If it is an educational statue, and has educational value, its place is in the Education Temple belonging to the State of New York.” Skinner urged the Regents to have the statue moved. In 1922, it was relocated–far from Albany – to the Oswego State Normal School (now SUNY Oswego).
By 1900, Brine had relocated to New York City, where he had a studio. A fascinating Brines creation was a statue of Emil Ambos, placed on the man’s grave in Columbus, Ohio. Ambos a man of wealth and an avid angler, is depicted in his fishing outfit, holding a rod and a stringer of fish.
Brines’ final project was apparently a marble altar for the Christ Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, which featured a relief of Jesus and the twelve disciples. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 4, 1924), Brines “labored long and diligently over this work of art,” knowing it would be “the last piece of work that he would accomplish on this earth, for he was suffering with tuberculosis and was conscious that his end was drawing near.”
Brines died on June 23, 1905, just a week before his 46th birthday. He passed away in Jay, in the Adirondacks, where he had been staying. It seems likely he had sought out the clear air in order, if not to cure him, to make him more comfortable. It seems that years of inhaling granite dust took their toll on his lungs. Probate documents showed that his personal estate was valued at only $1,000, and that he owned no real estate.
John Francis Brines is buried in River Bend Cemetery in his native Westerly, Rhode Island. A monument designed by his friend, Albany architect Marcus T. Reynolds, marks where his remains lie.
But Why Joseph Brant?
Now that light has been shed on Brines’ career and personal traits, what about the questions raised by Carola? Who decided that the Capitol building should be graced with an image of Brant, a man responsible for so much destruction and heartache during the American Revolution? And also, why?
Something that should not be overlooked is the sheer number of carvings that were needed for the Capitol. Many famous men are depicted, and also some women (including Susan B. Antony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frances Willard). On the Western Staircase alone, the faces of 77 famous people appear (including two images of John Jay), plus one hundred non-famous people (some were friends and relatives of the stone carvers, and two have been identified as the daughter and granddaughter of Capitol architect Isaac G. Perry). Designers may have gotten to the point where they were scratching their heads to come up with more faces, any faces. Not everything on the Capitol was heroic in nature. In her brief biography of her husband, Fannie G. Brines characterized some of the sculptures as “grotesque and humorous figures.”
There were also representations of non-humans. In “The Stone Sentinels of New York’s State Capitol” (published in the June, 1996 issue of New York State Conservationist), Constance J. Carroll wrote that “In addition to the birds of prey, a bison, a pine marten, a raccoon and a wild turkey watchfully guard the Capitol’s eastern approach.” In addition, numerous carvings depict concepts, such as “Fame” and “Fortune,” and those referenced above.
In Carola’s Times Union article, he was unable to locate official records that shed light on who, specifically, had chosen Joseph Brant. But there is historical information that suggests that Brines was largely given free rein as to the subjects of his modelings. If he did not single-handedly make these decisions, he certainly was one of the principals, along with Perry and Louis J. Hinton.
The 1896 New York Times article explained that: “After developing his designs, Mr. Brines submits them to Commissioner Perry, and with the latter’s approval they are cast in plaster.” (The plaster models were used in producing the actual stonework.) In C. R. Roseberry’s book, The Capitol Story, it says that, for carvings on the Eastern Approach, “In general, he [Brines] picked the subjects himself, under Perry’s watchful eye.” Roseberry also stated that Hinton directly supervised the work of modelers Brines and Robert Walker. Another individual involved was William G. Van Zandt. Roseberry notes that he and Brines sought out animals and birds to be portrayed – many of them native New York species. In the article in The Conservationist, Carroll wrote that Van Zandt explained it was he and Brines who chose which animals to portray: “We sought to leave a permanent record of some of the animals and birds common to the earlier period of the country and this state.”
From what can be determined, it seems likely that Brines largely made the decisions as to what sculptures were going to adorn the building, with input from others. When it comes to Brant, there are some particular reasons that Brines may have been behind that selection. Being from Rhode Island, he may not have been acutely aware of Brant’s depredations in the Empire State. Brines also had created some other depictions of Native Americans. Besides the face of Brant, another Native American face adorns the Capitol. Also, one of Brines; noteworthy sculptures (not on the Capitol) depicts a Native American boldly steering a canoe through some river rapids.
Though Brant may seem to be an unlikely candidate to be honored by having his image present on the Capitol’s exterior, it is not entirely bizarre. Brant had fought on the side of the Americans and British during the French and Indian War. During the American Revolution, he was not duplicitous, but was straightforward with the Americans as to where his loyalties lay. At a testy meeting with General Nicholas Herkimer at Unadilla in the summer of 1777, he clearly explained why he felt compelled to side with the King’s forces. And – although Brant did not know the particulars – Herkimer had made arrangements for Brant and some key tribesmen to be assassinated. (Brant had suspicions, however, and made Herkimer aware that, at his signal, several hundred warriors were prepared to fall upon the American soldiers.)
Antipathy toward Brant lingered for some time after the end of the war as related by William L. Stone, author of several biographical works in the mid-19th Century. When passing through Albany years after the Revolution, Brant was not welcomed by all her citizens. In 1797, threats were made against his life, and Albany officials insisted on guaranteeing his safety by having a man escort him as he traveled from there through the Mohawk Valley.
But Brant also had admirers – Aaron Burr, for example, who commended Brant as “the celebrated Indian Chief,” and who had his daughters entertain him in New York City. And, to boot, while in Albany, Brant negotiated a treaty which resulted in the transfer of acres and acres of Native American land to the State of New York (a deal that was contested by traditional Mohawks over 180 years later). Less than ten years later, when again visiting Albany, sensitivities were lessened to the point that Brant traded war stories with former foes Peter Gansevoort and Philip Van Cortlandt.
And it should not be overlooked that Brant’s raids were the subjects of American vengeance. He had not gotten off scot-free. In fact, the “expeditions” against the Native Americans by Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton have been labeled by some as the Sullivan-Clinton Genocide of 1779.
Stone’s books, while not neglecting Brant’s attacks on the white settlements, had many positive things to say about the famous Native American. Stone even quoted DeWitt Clinton, who had spoken of Brant’s “great attainments in polity, in negotiation, in eloquence, and in war.”
Brant had not been a Benedict Arnold, switching sides mid-war. In a sonnet, Shakespeare wrote: “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Perhaps, by the 1890s, Brant was more easily forgiven than Arnold. At any rate, with Stone’s books as a major source of knowledge about Brant, the public was likely somewhat sympathetic toward him.
These arguments are supported by language in the 1896 Argus item. It referred to Brant as “the illustrious chieftain,” who “was a fine orator and a wise statesman.”
So, though it may seem surprising that someone (probably Brines, et al.) decided to grace the Capitol with Brant’s visage – it is not incredibly surprising.
Finally, it is possible that Brines wanted to put one over on politicians by honoring a one-time enemy of white New Yorkers. In 1895, there was a change in the political composition of the Capitol Commission, whose members oversaw the construction project. As the Albany Argus described it, on June 12, 1895, “Thirty-Three Democratic Heads Laid on the Block and Chopped Off.” Amongst the “decapitated” were Brines, Hinton, and a number of other artisans.
Brines’ continued to work on the Capitol, but it seems he did so as a contract worker, and not as an employee. As for Hinton, his employment lapsed for some time. An article in the Albany Evening Journal (December 8, 1896) praised the progress that had been made since Hinton’s departure, and derided his previous work, despite the belief of “his Democratic friends” that he was “an indispensable factor in the Capitol construction, and that his dismissal was a serious loss to the state.”
But… just a few days later, Hinton was back. The Argus reported on December 12, 1896, that he had been re-employed, and mocked the Republicans for having discredited his accomplishments. Anyone familiar with Hinton’s work, it said, knew that “there has not been his equal on the building.”
Brines wrote a letter in 1903, responding to a request from Frank E. Elwell, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who had sought information about his life. Brines sent a list of some of his works of art, saying that they were all anyone needed to know. His life, he wrote, “has been one of work, hardship, and struggle.” Additional information “would not result in a particularly joyous picture.” Might he have had lingering resentment over the political shenanigans that had impacted him and co-workers at the Capitol?
Could it be that he decided to display Joseph Brant’s gazing face as a discreet gag played on unknowing politicos? After all, in his wife’s booklet about him, she noted that Brines was known for his sense of humor.
Photos, from above: portrait of John Francis Brines from the book, A Sketch of the Life of John Francis Brines, Sculptor, by Fannie G. Brines; and statue of Edward Austin Sheldon courtesy The Albany Argus, February 15, 1920.