George Catlin, American Indian Portraits

Padraig Kirwan reviews an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

March 14, 2013

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London, until 23 June

Pennsylvania-born artist and writer George Catlin (1796-1872) described his Indian Gallery as a “fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race”.

When it opened in New York City in 1837, it offered the curious public a representation of Plains Indian cultures, and included hundreds of watercolour portraits and landscape scenes that Catlin had painted during his travels west of the Mississippi river from 1832 to 1836. It also featured cultural artefacts that the entrepreneurial showman had collected throughout his time in present-day Montana and Minnesota, including medicine bundles, pipes, weapons, clothing and even a tepee taken from the Crow tribe. Billed as an entirely accurate picture of indigenous life, the exhibition gave visitors an opportunity to gaze at hitherto mysterious aspects of the Sioux, Mandan and Ojibwe peoples, and it proved so popular that Catlin was able to take it on tour to cities throughout the US, including Boston, Washington DC and Philadelphia.

Despite that initial success, Americans soon grew tired of Catlin’s dramatic representation of tribal communities and in 1840, after an unsuccessful attempt to sell it to the US government, the Indian Gallery arrived in the Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly. According to The Times, this “very curious exhibition” offered “the antiquary, the naturalist and the philosopher”, as well as the general public, an opportunity to peruse “300 portraits of Distinguished Chiefs” along with “Indian manufactures and curiosities”. It also offered a first-hand account of what were described as “horrible religious ceremonies” and “abhorrent and execrable cruelties”. For the princely sum of one shilling, these “wonders” could be viewed, any time between 10am and 6pm each day.

Several of the paintings and objects that featured in Catlin’s Indian Gallery are now, once again, being displayed in the heart of London - albeit in a very different setting, and within a very different frame. Visitors to the National Portrait Gallery can view some of the most illustrious portraits that the American artist painted, including Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light), Going to and Returning from Washington and Múk-a-tah-mish-o-káh-kaik, Black Hawk, Wounded Buffalo. They will also encounter fine examples of the artist’s landscapes, likenesses of the buffalo and representations of indigenous ceremonies, including the Mandan ritual O-kee-pa, or bull dance. More importantly, those passing through the exhibition will be invited to consider Catlin’s project in the widest possible context.

This invitation is both timely and necessary, since, like the 5 million indigenous people living in North America today, many may be keen to discover how far his life’s work fed into, and perhaps even corroborated, expansionist rhetoric. In the wake of the massacres that followed the signing of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and President Andrew Jackson’s attempts to relocate the tribes west of the Mississippi, Catlin saw himself as the self-appointed “historian” of “a dying nation”. Thus, even though his aim was to defend Plains tribes from civilisation and annihilation, he nevertheless seemed to believe that movement westward was inevitable, and that America’s national mission - its Manifest Destiny - would destroy native life.

By describing the supposed decimation of the eastern tribes as a “sad and melancholy truth” in 1841, the painter and traveller, rather regrettably, echoed Jackson’s 1830 remark that the “extinction” of native peoples would certainly give rise to “melancholy reflections”. Catlin’s observations may also have substantiated the popular image of the vanishing or doomed native - an image that had recently featured, for example, in James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Thomas Cole’s epic landscape paintings.

As well as eulogising a population that had not, in fact, disappeared into the fog of American history, Catlin’s portraits and writings helped to establish the representation of the Plains warrior as the noblest, and truest, of all Native Americans. Indeed, the power of Catlin’s artistry was such that his historical representations of the Sioux, the Comanche and the Kiowa are often taken as the defining image of native peoples, so the Indian Gallery has concretised, and fixed, a very particular vision of indigenous life.

One effect of this is that the landscape traditions, ways of life and modern-day existence of hundreds of individual tribes and communities known collectively as “the 500 nations” are often ignored by the wider public. Another is that the tribes are still continually compared with, and somehow displaced by, Catlin’s prototypical Indian. As one of the characters in Shadow Tag, a 2010 novel by Ojibwe author Louise Erdrich, comments, these “images stole their subjects and, for the rest of the world, became more real, until it seemed they were the only things left”.

This “dream replica” looms large in the popular consciousness, often delimiting non-native ideas about Native American identity, and becoming a genuinely difficult issue for indigenous people in America today. As well as facing the challenge of bringing their political and cultural independence to the attention of the US government and mainstream American society, tribal communities must often strive to protect the artistic, spiritual and legal sovereignties that arise out of their indigenous status and which are protected by treaties with the federal government.

During the struggle to enact such independence, whether by repatriating spiritual artefacts, restoring tribal lands or accessing healthcare, the 566 federally recognised tribes find themselves confronting a rather narrow, one-dimensional understanding of their rights and character. Attempts at economic development, which often involve tribally owned casinos or other forms of tourism on reservations, have led to public outcries about tribes’ loss of their “noble” demeanour on one hand, and about unfair advantages being given to them on the other. These arguments suggest, albeit implicitly, that folk in “Indian Country” should either conform to the historical type that Catlin so successfully commoditised, or else forfeit their rights as autonomous, indigenous people.

Yet, there are other, far more positive energies to be found within the story of the Indian Gallery - energies that the exhibition’s curators, Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli, have done a remarkably fine job of amplifying. As well as discussing the intricacies of Catlin’s art and contextualising his project within the “large-scale political and social movements of the nineteenth century”, they point out that he championed indigenous peoples in an era when most Americans spoke only of the “Indian problem”. In doing so, the curators attend to both the sophisticated impulses that regulated the Pennsylvanian’s life’s work, and the reality that his project was, in many ways, superior to what Lucy Maddox described as the era’s “sentimental eulogies for the vanishing Indian”, in her book Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (1992). Thus, Pratt and Carpenter Troccoli describe Catlin as “an elusive, contradictory” character who “gave personality, dignity and a strong sense of human agency to his sitters”, even as he collected “skulls to show the effects of head-binding”.

Complemented by a one-day conference, titled American Indian Images: Making and Breaking George Catlin’s Legacy, as well as events featuring the Mohawk film-maker Shelley Niro and the Cheyenne/Arapaho conceptual artist Edgar Heap of Birds, this exhibition invites us to interrogate the cultural mores that shaped Catlin’s travels into the Great Plains, his contribution to the mythologisation of the American frontier and the enduring legacy of his depictions of Native American life. Visitors might do well to follow the advice that Floyd Favel, a Plains Cree playwright, gives to tourists passing through the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC: “Explore this gallery. Encounter it. Reflect on it. Argue with it.”

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