Painting the First Encounter
Painting the First Encounter
Curiosities. Early in the spring of 1804, as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were exploring the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, a party of Osage chiefs traveled from St. Louis to Washington, D.C. They were welcomed by President Thomas Jefferson, and as they toured Eastern American cities they became objects of great curiosity. In Washington at least five of the Osage Chiefs sat for portraits by Charles Balthazer Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, a successful painter who had fled to America to escape the French Revolution. Saint-Mémin’s works, drafted with the aid of the mechanical “physiognotrace,” a wooden-framed drawing aid, are the earliest known portraits of Plains Indians. Another delegation of Plains Indians came East in 1805. While in Philadelphia they visited Charles Wilson Peale’s natural history museum; Peale, also using the physiognotrace, cut silhouettes of a group of the Indians and later sent them to Jefferson, remarking that “some of these savages have interesting characters in the line of their faces.” By October 1805 Lewis and Clark sent back East their first collection of scientific specimens. Among this shipment were some magpies, a prairie dog, animal skins, and a buffalo robe on which a Mandan Indian artist documented a battle around 1797.
Charles Bird King. In 1821 Maj. Benjamin O’Fallon, Indian agent for the Missouri River nations, persuaded prominent members of the Kansa, Oto and Missouri, Omaha, and Pawnee Nations to visit Washington. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade, commissioned Charles Bird King, a gentleman-artist who had studied under Benjamin West, to paint portraits of the Indian delegation. These works were the first series of oil paintings of prominent Western Indians. King’s Petalesharo, Skidi Pawnwee Chief (1821) depicted a young chief who had become something of a popular hero during the tour; he was lauded for his heroic rescue of a Comanche maiden about to be sacrificed by the Pawnees. Petalesharo and other portraits, including White Plume, Head Chief of the Kansa, and Eagle of Delight, Wife
of Prairie Wolf (both 1821), became part of the National Indian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1858 the Portrait Gallery was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remained until a fire destroyed many of the portraits in 1865. Fortunately King’s work survives in replicas, as well as in lithographs illustrating McKenney and James Hall’s three-volume work titled History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836–1844).
Audubon. In the meantime, as Plains Indians traveled East, some American artists began to explore the West. One of the first artists to document the wildlife of the West was John James Audubon. Born in Haiti and working as a portraitist in Philadelphia, Audubon became interested in documenting birds in their natural settings. In 1820 he set out to provide a comprehensive pictorial record of every bird species in North America. It was a massive project that took eighteen years of traveling, sketching and studying to complete. When Audubon’s Birds of America was published in 1838, it contained 435 plates, portraits of birds that are rich in detail and crisp in color and scale. Audubon’s work was scientific in impulse, but he would become a romantic figure. Charles W. Webber, a popular nineteenth-century interpreter of the West, would later compare Audubon to Daniel Boone. Audubon, who had met and painted Boone, was, according to Webber, a model of the “Hunter-Naturalist,” ruggedly enduring danger, exposure, and solitude in the wilderness.
The Long Expedition. Lewis and Clark were not accompanied by formally trained artists, but in 1818 Titian Ramsay Peale and Samuel Seymour joined an expedition up the Missouri River led by Maj. Stephen H. Long. Peale was Charles Wilson Peale’s son, and although not formally trained as an artist, he had grown up in his father’s museum and become remarkably adept at depicting the animals there. His skill was recognized by Thomas Say, the naturalist appointed to the Long Expedition, and Say chose Peale as his assistant. Samuel Seymour, a Philadelphia-based painter and engraver, also joined the expedition. Seymour’s duties, as described by Long, were to “furnish sketches of landscapes, wherever we meet with any distinguished for their beauty or grandeur” and to paint likenesses “of distinguished Indians, and exhibit groups of savages engaged in celebrating their festivals, or sitting in council.” In June 1819, fifteen years after Lewis and Clark’s expedition, the Long expedition began its ascent up the Missouri, following the south fork of the Platte River into present-day Colorado. They went as far west as to come in sight of the Rockies. Along the way Peale collected specimens and hunted; he completed more than 120 drawings of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, shells, and plants. Together, he and Seymour were the first known white artists to make field sketches documenting the lives of the Plains Indians Peale’s Bulls (1820) is the earliest known picture of buffalo grazing on the Great Plains, and his Sioux Lodges (1819) is the earliest known picture of a Plains tipi.
The Native Americans
I have closely studied the Indian character in its native state, and also in its secondary form along our Frontiers; civilized, as it is often (but incorrectly) called. I have seen it in every phase, and although there are many noble instances to the contrary, and with many of whom I am personally acquainted; yet the greater part of those who have lingered along the Frontiers, and been kicked about like dogs, by white men, and beaten into a sort of a civilization, are very far from being what I would be glad to see them, and proud to call them, civilized by the aids and examples of good and moral people….
Such are the results to which the present system of civilization brings that small part of these poor unfortunate people, who outlive the first calamities of their country; and in this degraded and pitiable condition, the most of them end their days in poverty and wretchedness, without the power of rising above it. Standing on the soil which they have occupied from their childhood, and inherited from their fathers; with the dread of “pale faces,” and the deadly prejudices that have been reared in their breasts against them, for the destructive influences which they have introduced into their country, which have thrown the greater part of their friends and connexions into the grave, and are now promising the remainder of them no better prospect than the dreary one of living a few years longer, and then to sink into the ground themselves; surrendering their lands and their fair hunting grounds to the enjoyment of their enemies, and their bones to be dug up and strewed about the fields, or to be labelled in our Museums.
For the Christian and philanthropist, in any part of the world, there is enough, I am sure, in the character, condition, and history of these unfortunate people, to engage his sympathies—for the Nation, there is an unrequited account of sin and injustice that sooner or later will call for national retribution —and for the American citizens, who live, every where proud of their growing wealth and their luxuries, over the bones of these poor fellows, who have surrendered their hunting-grounds and their lives, to the enjoyment of their cruel dispossessors, there is a lingering terror yet, I fear, for the reflecting minds, whose mortal bodies must soon take their humble places with their red, but injured brethren, under the same glebe; to appear and stand, at last, with guilt’s shivering conviction, amidst the myriad ranks of accusing spirits, that are to rise in their own fields, at the final day of resurrection!
George Catlin. George Catlin was the first painter who devoted his entire career to the West. In 1832, while working as a portraitist in Philadelphia, Catlin witnessed a delegation of Indians passing through Philadelphia on their way to Washington. Struck by this vision, he resolved that “nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.” He spent the next eight years traveling
the frontier and painting as many as 146 Indian nations. Catlin worked from sketches to paint in a number of genres. His portraits, such as Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief of the Blood Tribe of Blackfeet (1832), were among the first by an American artist to portray Indians as unique individuals. He also painted hunting and ceremonial scenes, such as the Mandan Okipa Ceremony (1832), as well as landscapes, such as his panoramic view of The Pipestone Quarry (1848), a Santee Sioux site Catlin described as “great … in traditions, and stories, of which this Western world is full and rich.” In addition to his paintings, in 1841 Catlin published his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. Letters recounts Catlin’s adventures in the West and his encounters with Indians. Catlin’s travels left him with a keen empathy for the Indians as he witnessed the often brutal and ruthless Indian removal policies of the United States government. The last chapter of Letters is a scathing critique of the American exploitation and destruction of “the noble races of red men.”
Carl Bodmer. In 1832 Alexander Phillipp Maximilian, a former general in the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars and the prince of a small German principality, was planning an expedition into Western North America. Aside from being a soldier, Maximilian was a scholar and natural historian who had gained wide recognition for his research in Brazil from 1815 to 1817. On that expedition he had executed his own field sketches, but now he felt he needed a full-time artist. To record his North American findings he engaged Carl Bodmer, a twenty-three-year-old Swiss artist who was formally trained in drawing and watercolors.
In the West. To prepare for their journey Maximilian and Bodmer visited bookshops and museums with materials on the West. In Philadelphia they talked with Titian Peale and studied Indian artifacts gathered by Lewis and Clark. Near St. Louis they examined a small collection of Catlin’s oil paintings. They left St. Louis on The Yellowstone, the same American Fur Company steamer on which Catlin traveled, proceeding up the Missouri to Fort Lookout, near the mouth of the White River. There Bodmer drew his first full-length portrait of a Plains Indian, Big Soldier, Teton Sioux Chief (1833). After reaching Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, Maximilian and Bodmer followed the 1805 trail of Lewis and Clark and arrived at Fort McKenzie, near the mouth of the Marias River, in the heart of Blackfoot country. There they witnessed a daybreak attack by some six hundred Assinboines and Crees on the Piegans living outside the Fort. Bodmer recorded the event in his Assinboine-Cree Attack (1833). Maximilian and Bodmer spent a cold winter at Fort Clark, where Bodmer documented Mandan and Hidatsa culture, including his Interior of a Mandan Earth Lodge (1833) and Bison Dance of the Mandan Indians (circa 1834). Bodmer’s technique was to make quick sketches of ceremonial scenes and then later fill in details, after making watercolors of the principal performers wearing the ceremonial dress. Bodmer used this technique throughout much of the expedition; in fact, many of his paintings were finished only after he returned to Europe.
Legacy of the First Encounter. Compared to Catlin’s broad brushstrokes and bold colors, Bodmer’s work was much more precise. Spurred by Maximilian’s scientific agenda, he took great pains to render lodgings, clothing, and landscapes in nearly photographic detail. In addition, whereas Catlin’s work frequently portrayed individual Indians in isolation, Bodmer’s work reflected a stronger sense of environment. His Assiniboine Medicine Sign (1833), for example, quietly suggests a uniquely Indian landscape, one in which spirits, nature, and the living coexisted. Maximilian’s expedition was Bodmer’s only trip to North America. He returned to Europe and spent the rest of his life in Paris, successfully exhibiting wildlife and forest scenes and eventually being named a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Together, Bodmer and Catlin’s work helped to document nations that were in flux. Their paintings established the Plains Indian as the dominant image of the American Indian in both America and Europe.
Chris Bruce and others, The Myth of the West (Seattle: Rizzoli, 1990);
John C. Ewers, Artists of the Old West (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965);
Dawn Glanz, How the West Was Drawn: American Art and the Settling of the Frontier (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1978);
John Wilmerding, American Art (New York: Penguin, 1976).