The Harvard-educated Burbank studied at the Chicago Academy of Design and spent a brief period in Europe before returning to Chicago to open his own studio. His first commission was for Northwest Magazine, for which he painted views of the Northern Pacific Railway. But in the late 1890s, his career took a different path when his uncle, Edward Everett Ayer, president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, commissioned him to paint portraits of prominent Native Americans, among them Chief Geronimo. Burbank went on to paint more than 1,200 likenesses of native peoples, representing more than one hundred tribes.
Amy Pastan The Lure of the West: Treasures of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (New York and Washington, D.C.: Watson-Guptill Publications, in cooperation with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2000)
Elbridge Ayer Burbank’s first job was for Northwest Magazine, illustrating the Northern Pacific Railway route from Minnesota to Puget Sound, Washington. After two years of working as a portraitist in England, he settled in Chicago. Critics praised his work, but Burbank was not particularly ambitious and rather than compete in the cutthroat world of society portraiture, he traveled around the South sketching African Americans. In 1897, Burbank’s wealthy uncle, Edward E. Ayer, president of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, commissioned him to go West and document American Indian life. Several prominent museums along with Wanamaker’s department store entered into a bidding war over these portraits, and the Chicago public school system even ordered 10,000 color reproductions of a single image. Burbank spent the last years of his life in San Francisco, contributing illustrations to the San Francisco Chronicle. He died after being struck by a cable car. (Wolfe, American Indian Portraits: Elbridge Ayer Burbank in the West (1897-1910), 2000)