James Otto Lewis (1799 - 1858)

Birth date: 1799 Death date: 1858  
Birth location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Death location: New York City, New York  
Media: Graphic Art , Painting Web site:
Comprehensive (file rating) - Major Wisconsin artist file that includes comprehensive documentation on artist's life that can be researched on site at MWA.


James Otto Lewis
Born 1799 in Philadelphia
Died 1858 in New York

James Otto Lewis was the son of a German emigrant who anglicized his name from Ludwig to Lewis when he came to Philadelphia, from Crailsheim in 1784.  As a boy, James was involved in erecting fortifications against British advancement in the War of 1812.  It was here that he became acquainted with General Lewis Cass and followed him to Detroit where he became employed as a copper engraver, a draftsman and portrait painter. 

Lewis was present at the moment in history when the western frontier was passing from the hands of the British to the United States. Outposts in Wisconsin included Portage, Green Bay and Prairie du Chien, all of which were visited by Lewis between 1819-29.  It was during this time that the United States government was issuing treaties with tribal settlements of the Chippewa, Ho-Chunk (then called Winnebago), Sioux, Sauk and Potawatamie people.  From 1823-34, Lewis was employed by the Indian Department to make portraits of the Indians, following a general plan of the Honorable J. A. Barbour, Secretary of War.

Contemporaries of Lewis included artists George Catlin and Seth Eastman, both of whom did similar work in the Wisconsin territory.  Other artist/explorer expeditions such as that of Karl Bodmer and his sponsor Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied, though perhaps more well-known today, fell in the footsteps of Lewis who was one of the earliest documented artists present in this area.  Because of his earlier arrival on the scene, it was believed that his portraits were more accurate depictions of the native tribal societies.  Catlin had followed a different route and much of his work was executed in the studio. 

Lewis’ work, prominently labeled as “on-the-spot,” included a series of 20 portraits and a view of the fort, tribes and soldiers at the Prairie du Chien treaty in 1825.  The treaty, effected by Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan and William Clark of Missouri, was an agreement with nine area tribes which opened this area for Euro-settlers.  Two years after this treaty, a supplementary council was held at Fond du Lac and once again, Lewis was present to immortalize nine individuals from the various tribes.  His work continued at Green Bay and Fort Wayne and Missenewa, in Indiana.  In 1833, he concluded his painting career with a portrait of the famous Chief Blackhawk at Detroit, as a commission for General Cass. 

Over the next 10 - 15 years, several different publishing houses in Philadelphia, New York and London issued lithograph portfolios of Lewis’ work.  Nine numbers were issued from May 1835 - June 1836 and contained 72 color plates of portraits and landscapes with no descriptive text.  As public interest soared, other artists and print houses issued portfolios which were often poorly replicated and hand colored in inconsistent manner. 

Often the features of the Native Americans were anglicized or superimposed with facial war paint.  Lewis’ original works were tragically lost in a 1865 fire while in storage at the Smithsonian in 1865.  Lewis died in New York State, financially ruined and in obscurity.  His prints remain as some of the earliest images of Wisconsin and its people.

Selected One-Person Exhibitions

1984 "Retrospective Exhibition", Institute of Contemporary Art, Tallahassee, Florida
"Harvey K. Littleton: A Retrospective Exhibition", High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
"Harvey K. Littleton: Glasskulpturen/Graphik", Glasmuseum, Frauenau, Germany
"Harvey K. Littleton: Reflections 1946-1994", traveling exhibit including Elvehem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Wisconsin Affiliations

Wisconsin Art Organizations

No art organizations were found.

  • Facebook icon
  • Twitter icon
  • Instagram icon
  • Flickr icon
  • Youtube icon
  • E-News icon