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Strange and Wondrous: Prints of India from the Robert J. Del Bontà Collection

Enduring Stereotypes


Detail: Willie’s Rope Trick
Robert J. Del Bontà collection, E1452

On the 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell portrayed Willie Gillis, his fictional version of an all-American World War II soldier, in the midst of duping an Indian religious figure with the simple children's game "cat's cradle." Perhaps a nod to American soldiers' wily abilities in all wartime locales, it is also a pun on the infamous "Indian Rope Trick." In this act, a fakir or yogi magically draws a freestanding rope out of a basket, which his assistant miraculously climbs.

By the twentieth century, Indian ascetics—or magicians disguised as ascetics—often were viewed as tricksters practicing magic for a living. Unlike the representations of snake charmers, who were shown enthralling audiences with their abilities, here the tables have turned. An American GI has outwitted the once-powerful Indian yogi. Still, the strength of stereotypes, solidified by the repetition of images of India over the centuries, remains intact.

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As renovation work continues in the Freer Gallery, the Sackler Gallery also will close on July 10, 2017. This museum-wide closure will allow us to completely reinstall our exhibitions and revitalize features to improve your visit. Both spaces will reopen on October 14, 2017, when we will welcome the public back to the Freer|Sackler: two galleries, one destination. For your safety, all visitors will have their bags checked. See the complete list of restricted items and bag sizes.