Monday, April 01, 2013

Review: George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

The exhibition continues until 23 June 2013
The National Portrait Gallery is currently exhibiting a large number of portraits of native American Indians - on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits is an exhibition about both an artist and the various American Indian tribes he encountered as he travelled across America.

It's also a story about ethnic cleansing and an Exhibition in London a very long time ago.

It's quite unlike most portrait exhibitions as these people were not painted in a studio - they were painted in their encampments.

This is a complete one-off exhibition.  Many of the images have never been seen in the UK before and it will be a very long time (if at all) before they are ever seen again.  I've included a sample of what you can see in my review below.

I'm guessing it's an exhibition which will appeal to people of all ages but that it might be particularly interesting for families with children and those people whose families have had experience of enforced migration.

The exhibition continues until 23 June and admission is free.

I recommend this exhibition - it's both a learning curve and a very interesting experience.

About George Catlin

George Catlin by William Fisk, 1849
George Catlin is a quite remarkable person.

First of all he took it upon himself to make an ethnographic record of the native American people.
He carried to the field two contemporary European philosophies: a belief in the virtue of "natural man" (man living in a natural environment), and a conviction that the scientific recording of natural phenomena was a key to progress.

Virginia Historial Society
His traveled west of the Mississippi five times in total in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians and their way of life.  His aim was to make a record before it was  irrevocably altered.

He was travelling and working at a critical point in the history of the Plains Indians.

The process of cultural transformation originally proposed by George Washington and translated into law by President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act required all native Americans living in the Southeast to resettle west of the Mississippi River.  It was an act which today would be referred to as "ethnic cleansing" and/or "forced migration".  Some would refer to it as an act of genocide given the deaths en route.

The tribes affected were the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole who had been living as autonomous nations in the American "Deep South".  The enforced march of some 13,000 people saw 4,000 die along the way to Oklahoma and is known as the "Trail of Tears"

In total Catlin met some 50 different indigenous groups or indian "nations" who lived west of the Mississippi River from present day North Dakota to Oklahoma.

On his travels he painted, he collected artefacts associated with their way of life and he wrote about what he found.


Portraits painted by George Catlin
Catlin is not the greatest of portrait artists however he's a very confident painter and produces a portrait of some character. There also can't be many people who got to paint such individuals - probably with a sizeable audience watching every move of a loaded paint brush!

Hee-oh'ks-te-kin, Rabbit's Skin Leggings
oil on canvas29 x 24 in. (73.7 x 60.9 cm)
and Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Warrior (1844)
oil on canvas29 x 24 in. (73.7 x 60.9 cm)
Apparently his method of approach was to focus on the face and to sketch in the rest, finishing bodies and costume details once he was back home in his studio.  In doing so, he managed to paint over 500 portraits as well as other paintings associated with his travels.

La-dóo-ke-a 
Buffalo Bull
A Grand Pawnee warrior
Note the development of the face relative to the rest of his body and clothing
Sometimes - as in this instance - he never finished the portrait
"Catlin's Gallery of North American Indians"

Facsimile of Catlin's Gallery of North American Indians
Egyptian hall, Piccadilly, London
George Catlin's original Indian Gallery is one of the most important collections in the Smithsonian.

Catlin had hoped for support for his endeavours throughout his career.  He lobbied the government for patronage while undertaking his trips and then tried to persuade them to buy his collection off him when

In order to remain solvent, Catlin took to touring with his Indian Gallery during the late 1830s and 1840s.  He took it around the States and also toured Europe with it - and acted as an advocate of the Indian way of life.  In doing so, he displayed his Gallery at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly in 1843.

In 1852, he was severely in debt and was forced to sell the original Indian Gallery.

In due course the Gallery made its way to the Smithsonian and so Catlin's original aim of creating a national historical record was achieved.  Interestingly the Smithsonian acquired it after they had a big fire which would have destroyed it had they taken it when Catlin originally wanted them to.  Maybe it was fate?

Dr Stephanie Pratt, Curator of the Exhibition,
Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Plymouth and
Tribal member of the Crow Creek Dakota Sioux Nation
- gazing at the portrait of one of her ancestors.
There are a number of events and talks associated with the exhibition which you can find out more about if you click the link

Curators: Dr Stephanie Pratt (left) and
Dr Joan Carpenter Troccolli (right)
(Founding Director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum)
co-authors of the accompanying book 'George Catlin: American Indian Portraits'
Catlin Online

The Smithsonian has a considerable amount of material on George Catlin and his Indian Gallery.

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