Images That Stole Their Subjects: Arts

Article excerpt

Padraig Kirwan considers the enduring impact of 19th-century portrayals of Native Americans.

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-jun- jon, Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light), Going to and Returning from Washington and Muk-a-tah-mish-o-kah-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. …