"Attack on New Ulm"

The 1904 painting by Anton Gag, 'Attack on New Ulm,' has been removed from the State Capitol. It depicts an opening skirmish in the Dakota attack on New Ulm in 1862. Photo courtesy state of Minnesota

Dolly Harm of Bloomington has fond memories of occasional visits to St. Paul with her late husband, Gary, to see a large oil painting created in 1904 by his grandfather, Anton Gag. “Attack on New Ulm” has been displayed in various rooms at the Capitol since 1923.

“We were so very proud to have it there,” Harm said.

Gag's depiction of combating Native America warriors and white settlers has been removed from the walls of the State Capitol for the building's renovation and will not be returned for display.

The Minnesota Historical Society executive council's decision was made this week after considering a recommendation by an ad hoc committee that had considered the importance of artworks in the Capitol and their effects on viewers. The review was done in conjunction with the Capitol's restoration project.

The work by New Ulm resident and artist Gag and an oil on canvas by Carl Boeckmann were taken down after a controversy over artists' portrayals of the Dakota — who represent one side of a culture clash shortly after the Minnesota Territory opened up to settlers.

“Neither painting is original to the Capitol design and both are painful reminders of our shared history. The ‘Attack on New Ulm’ portrays one incident during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which not all Dakota supported. This painting should not be the primary portrayal of American Indians who lived in Minnesota for more than 10,000 years,” MHS Director D. Stephen Elliott said in a press release.

“Attack on New Ulm” is the property of MHS, which became its owner when the work was donated by a man from Mankato, said Lauren Peck of the MHS public relations department.

Not everyone is happy about the results of the process.

“I was appalled when I heard of the removal of the painting," said Harm, who is executor for the Gag family estate.

She understands the scene may be uncomfortable for Native Americans to view. Her concern is that the framed oil would be warehoused, out of the public's sight.

“This painting is still a part of Minnesota's history. You can't just take away part of it.”

Others think the action was warranted.

Gwen Westerman of Mankato, a Minnesota State University professor of Dakota descent who served on the ad hoc committee reviewing the artwork, described her thought process while five pieces depicting Native Americans were under review.

"The power of art to influence perception of the history of our state is real. From my observations, it appears that what creates 'controversy' here is a perception that a white interpretation of this complex and multi-faceted history is the only 'truthful' representation, and that there is no room for other perspectives," Westerman said in a written statement.

She went on to say a subcommittee member remarked that the Native Americans can’t come to a consensus on what to do with this art, "so we should leave it where it is." Westerman said, however, that consensus was never considered a requirement for any other group of Minnesotans regarding the Capitol art.

"Our society remains constrained by images that depict Indians as violent, treacherous, and racially inferior, and by a reliance on warfare as the chronological markers of history."

She said the two paintings, 'Attack on New Ulm' and 'Eighth Minnesota at the Battle of Ta-Ha-Kouty' lack interpretive text about the actual events portrayed. "Consequently, visitors see only 'savage' Indians engaged in war against white citizens. This is how Dakota people are depicted in the Capitol, and it often serves as justification for continued vilification of our Dakota people today."

Factors in the painting's removal included the historical integrity of the building, which was designed by the prominent architect Cass Gilbert. He also chose the first paintings to be displayed in the Capitol.

“So, it's not just the architecture, its artwork also defines it,” Elliot said.

MHS will next month begin the discussion of the future for the Gag and the Boeckmann paintings.

Before he came to MHS in 2011, Elliott was president and chief executive officer of the New York State Historical Association and The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York. His responsibilities included the Fenimore Art Museum and its American Indian art collection.

'“Attack on New Ulm' is an important painting. It is part of such an important event (the U.S.-Dakota War),” he said.

“We certainly want it to be where it can be accessed.”

Brown County Historical Society Director Bob Burgess would be pleased to display the painting at the museum in New Ulm. He's not received any correspondence from MHS offering the Anton Gag work to his museum.

“I doubt they would want to part with such a precious thing. A loan — now, that might be possible,” Burgess guessed.

Gag, who did not witness the 1862 battle he painted, did extensive research on its subjects. He traveled to St. Paul to study the history of the war and he met with several Dakota people to sketch their faces and clothing.

“Educationally, it's a gem in the wilderness,” Burgess said, describing the significance of the details in the painting.

Harm said she would be pleased if “Attack on New Ulm” was displayed in the town where the battle was fought. If that were to happen, the county historical society's climate-controlled environment would be the preferred exhibit space.

Although she has a great fondness for New Ulm's other museum — which Anton Gag designed as a home for his family — The Gag House would not be able to house or care for the oil work.

Elliot said a New Ulm showing of the painting may be possible. “Brown County Historical Society has an excellent museum.”

Wherever the painting goes on display in the future, Elliot expects it will be presented as a way to provide an opportunity for viewers to learn about the state's history.

“We would want to place the painting where it would be effective. It is the only one (from the Capitol art collection) that shows a moment in the war of 1862.”

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