Saturday, February 17, 2018

Camouflage Artist | Frank Overton Colbert

Frank Overton Colbert (1923)
Frank Overton Colbert was born at Riverside, in Oklahoma Indian Territory, on August 6, 1895. He is more commonly known as F. Overton Colbert, or, less often, as Frank Overton Redfeather Colbert. “Redfeather” is in reference to his Native American ancestry. His parents, Holmes Colbert (a Harvard graduate) and Ella Overton Colbert (educated in Europe), and earlier relatives were wealthy, prominent members of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. His maternal grandfather, Frank Overton, was a well-known politician, and one of his cousins was Captain Benjamin Colbert, whom Theodore Roosevelt had singled out, during the Spanish-American War, as one of the finest of the celebrated Rough Riders.

The Chickasaw and Choctaw peoples are historically closely related, which may account for Colbert being known as “Choc” while serving in the US Navy during World War I. According to the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, he was also known as “François” in France, where “He was one of the most curious figures of Paris’s Left Bank and was known as ‘the Redskin of Montparnasse.’” In another account of that Bohemian phase of his life, he is described as “a Redskin with all his feathers named Colbert.”

From an early age, Colbert hoped to become an artist, a choice that his father discouraged. As a compromise, he enrolled in the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, where he became a skilled mechanic. But at the end of that technical training, he was no less interested in art. His father withdrew his financial support, and Colbert left Oklahoma to explore the country on his own. He wandered westward, earning money by working intermittently at temporary jobs. Typically, he worked as a farm laborer, repaired machinery, and painted signs and posters. He also gave trick shooting exhibitions to paying audiences. Later, in newspaper stories, he claimed to be friends with Buffalo Bill, and it may have been during these wanderlust years that he became acquainted with that scout and Wild West showman.

Having reached Los Angeles after three months, Colbert set off for Alaska. It took him eight months (with extended pauses to earn money) to reach Seattle, from where he then sailed on to Nome by ship. From Alaska, he traveled by dog sled into Canada, near the Arctic Circle (where he painted the Northern Lights), then embarked on an arduous lengthy return, moving slowly south along the Pacific Coast again as far as South America, then across Panama into Mexico, and back to the US.

By 1917, while still in his early twenties, he ended up in Washington DC, where he became acquainted with a widely known Beaux-Arts painter and sculptor named Paul Wayland Bartlett. Earlier that year, Bartlett had co-founded a group of Washington artists called the American Camouflage Division. Bartlett was its chairman, while among the other members were Felix Mahoney, Michel Jacobs, Glen Brown, Richard Brooks, A.G. Smith, Alexis B. Many, and J. Crozier. The US had not yet entered the war, but it seemed inevitable, and it was this group’s plan to offer their artistic expertise in the development of wartime camouflage. At the same time, comparable groups had also been formed in New York City (called the New York Camouflage Society or American Camouflage) and San Francisco (American Camouflage Western Division).

At the time, as an art student at the city’s School of Fine Arts, Colbert was surely aware of this camouflage group, which had been featured prominently in The Washington Star and other newspapers. Soon after the US entered the war, Colbert enlisted in the navy, where, according to a news story—

His precise knowledge of color was of value to the camouflage department, and many of his designs were used in the disguising of transports.

This is confirmed by another news article at the end of the war, in the Durant Weekly News (Durant OK) on September 12, 1919. After two years of service, the article notes, he was being discharged with the rank of CCM (Chief Carpenter’s Mate). He had been assigned, it continues, to

 the work of camouflaging ships of the service so that they might be more difficult of recognition by the enemy submarines. He has been many times back and forth over the sea and first and last has seen service on every type of vessel afloat.

Following WWI, Colbert returned not to Washington DC, but moved instead to Greenwich Village in New York, where he lived in an apartment on Cornelia Street while studying art at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now Parsons School of Design). That apartment was infested with bedbugs, and (true or not) Colbert later recalled an incident in which he killed a large bedbug that crawled across his drawing board, by stabbing it with a pin. Elaborating on his colored drawing of the dead insect, he designed a textile pattern, which he sold “to one of the city’s largest silk houses” where it became “one of the season’s best sellers.” He later moved to Sheridan Square.

There was a major breakthrough in Colbert’s career as an artist in February 1921, when an exhibition of his work was held at the Montross Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, a prominent gallery “where only the work of artists who have ‘arrived’ is permitted for exhibition.” Favorable if brief reviews were published in The Nation, The Arts, The New York Tribune and other publications. In addition, his work caught the attention of a New York journalist and art publicist named Holger Cahill. Newly hired to promote the Society of Independent Artists, Cahill believed that Colbert’s artwork exemplified an American brand of indigenous primitivism which he called Inje-Inje. As a consequence, Colbert began to produce what New York critics called Indian folklore pictures that represented aspects of Native American gods. Non-Indians need not be concerned about not understanding the images, advised one critic, because “the explanation appears beside the picture…”

The Trail to Happy Hunting Ground (1923), Frank Overton Colbert•
An additional factor that prompted Colbert to produce non-European Indian-influenced art may have been (as he recalled) a conversation with William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) that had taken place years earlier. “Red Feather,” Cody said to him, “you dip your brush in the rainbow and paint the Indian from the soul of all the generations of Indians, with the philosophy and precision of European thought.” He also advised: “In your art you belong to the poet with the painter’s eye for color and arrangement. You must be an Indian first and last, however well you become educated.”

As sales of Colbert’s work increased, he painted and exhibited in Paris and Florence as well as New York. According to a news article in the Durant Weekly News on December 15, 1922, he had been visiting Oklahoma for two weeks, but had to return to New York to open a new exhibition at the Montross Gallery. By mid-January, he “will sail to Paris, to continue his artwork in his studio there, as well as another studio in Florence.” Having spent time in earlier years in those two cities, it claims, he “is already a splendid conversationalist in both the French and Italian languages.”

It was apparently during his European episodes that he became a familiar oddity in the cafes and nightclubs of Montparnasse, where he could be seen drawing on site in pastels on thick, yellow sheets of butcher paper. He was especially noticed because he would be wearing a full Native American wardrobe, with an elaborate headdress.

He sometimes also dressed this way when he was in New York. We know this because of a story about his association with American author Mary Hunter Austin. On January 8, 1922, the National Arts Club in New York gathered for a banquet in honor of Austin’s achievements as a writer. As honored guest, Austin could choose to dress as she pleased. And she did: in honor of the American Southwest, she arrived in an outlandish Spanish-like dress that made her appear, as one critic said, to be wrapped in the flag of New Mexico. As a further indiscretion, her escort for the evening was none other than Frank Overton Colbert, who was dressed in buckskin Indian garb, with a headdress of flamingo feathers. His outfit included a necklace strung with nasty-looking teeth. When a socialite at the gathering asked what kind of animal’s teeth they were, Colbert answered “Alligator.” “Oh, how awful,” the woman exclaimed, and then politely added, “But I suppose you see it as the same as a pearl necklace.” To which Colbert responded, “No, not at all—any fool can take a pearl away from an oyster.”

We know that Colbert married, but all but nothing is known of his wife, who went with him to Paris in 1923. Her name was Kate Landon Colbert, and she was born in 1899, but we do not know how or when she died. Nor do we know where she is buried. They had one child, a son named Robert Holmes Colbert, who was born in 1926 in France and died at the age of 50 in 1976.

We also know that Colbert did not do entirely well in Europe. True, his work was chosen for the Salon d’Automne in 1923, and for the Salon des Indépendants in 1926. But it appears he succumbed to depression, and it became necessary to move back to the US (presumably with his wife and son). It is unclear where he settled after returning to the US, but he may have been living in Colorado, because at least one source reports that he was hospitalized in that state in 1941 because of mental illness.

Whatever the tragic circumstances, he died on March 20, 1953, and is buried in a military cemetery at Fort Lyons CO.


• Painting reproduced above is courtesy of Steven S. Powers. 


Colbert, François Overton Redfeather. Benezit Dictionary of Artists (2006).
FAMOUS ARTIST HERE PRIOR TO TRIP TO EUROPE. Durant Weekly News (Durant OK),  December 15, 1922, p. 7.
Franck, D. Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Modigilani, Matisse, and the Birth of Modern Art. New York: Grove Press, 2003.
INDIAN ARTIST IS EARNING HIS WAY FROM CITY TO CITY. Los Angeles Herald. September 30, 1915.
INDIAN ARTIST IS VISITOR IN BISBEE. Overton Colbert of Famous Oklahoma Family Is Making Tour of Country. Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee AZ). September 19, 1915, p. 6.
INDIAN ARTIST ON WARPATH. Remarkable Story of Oklahoma Born Genius on Road to Fame. WAS AIDED BY CODY. Civilization and Savagery in Struggle for Mastery of Colbert’s Nature. Tulsa Daily World (Tulsa OK) March 13, 1921, Sec A Page 9—
INDIAN ARTIST'S WORK HERE. F. Overton Arrives With His Paintings. Tulsa Daily World. October 28, 1922, p. 5.
Loving, P. "Art: An American Painter" in The Nation. January 26, 1921, p. 125.
Moore, A.W. Holger Cahill's Inje-Inje: The Story of a Modern Primitivism. Online. 
Saw Much Water Service. Durant Weekly News (Durant OK),  September 12, 1919, p. 4. 
Some Current Art Shows in the Local Galleries. New York Tribune. December 4, 1921, p. 1B. 

Note: There is a newspaper photograph (poorly printed) of Colbert, dressed in a feathered headdress and other Native American attire, in the World’s News (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), February 16, 1924, p. 4. The headline reads IMMORTALIZING THE ARTS OF HIS FATHERS, with a caption beneath the photo that claims that he is “François Overton Colbert, the last chief [sic] of the Chickasaw Indians, of Oklahoma, known to his people as Red Feather, now in Paris, where he is at work upon a series of canvases painted in the Indian manner.” 

A slightly different version of this biographical entry has also been contributed to

Signed copies still available