George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

© Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Catlin, "Hee-oh’ks-te-kin, Rabbit’s Skin Leggings, a Brave Nez Percé", 1832
National Portrait Gallery , Leicester Square Tuesday May 21 2013 10:00 - 18:00

A fascination with Native Americans was probably common among young boys in early nineteenth-century America; it wasn’t uncommon among the same demographic in late twentieth-century England, and we had rather fewer Native Americans. But George Catlin’s belief that it was wrong to wipe the USA clear of its original inhabitants was very unusual. Briefly a lawyer, this Pennsylvanian became a self-taught painter with one main subject (although his landscapes are lovely). He was also a fearless traveller who recorded scalp dances, buffalo hunts and, in 1832, the first steamboat trip up the Yellowstone River.

Catlin can’t do bodies, but the faces are extraordinary. Using a limited palette – lots of browns and reds – he made portrait after portrait, demonstrating the variety and profusion of hairstyle, facial type and decoration (the chief with a fierce creature’s pelt across his groin is particularly memorable, although competition is stiff). There are flowing locks and mohicans, shields and feathers and some beautifully detailed pipes. The names (Watchful Fox, Fire Bug That Creeps) are marvellous, too.

After the field trips came the Indian Gallery. Hundreds of Catlin’s portraits toured the eastern states of America but weren’t bought by the US government as planned, so he took his bandwagon around Europe (stopping off in Piccadilly in 1840). Native Americans performed live shows. Bankruptcy and crackpot attempts to recoup his riches followed. These failed, but his achievement stands. Early in this under-annotated and chronologically garbled exhibition, there’s a double image of a brave before and after white contact. He has exchanged native dress and dignity for a fan, a tailcoat and a pocketful of bottles. It’s a succinct portrayal of the destruction of a culture, and – even allowing for Victorian sentimentality – a finely-drawn tragedy.

Nina Caplan

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