Review: George Catlin’s American Indian Portraits

George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania in 1796, just as the world of the American Indian was being irreversibly transformed.

A visionary and entrepreneur, the sense of showmanship and spectacle comes through in the exoticism of Catlin’s portraits. The exhibition holds more than fifty, all of prominent American Indian Chiefs, fur traders and villagers. During his time spent painting and collecting artefacts in America, Catlin created an ‘Indian Gallery’, which he took with him to show across all of Europe and America. This is the first time since the 1850s travelling exhibitions that they have been shown collectively outside the United States. In 1839, Catlin’s collection amassed nearly 500 objects and portraits, yet he was bankrupted and forced to sell his ‘Indian Gallery’ to pay his creditors. He even sold two grizzly bears to London Zoo in 1840 after his travelling show had failed to attract enough visitors. The Gallery was later bequeathed to the Smithsonian where it has remained, until this selection was chosen for exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

During Catlin’s five journeys to the United States in the 1830s, his practice was to paint on site, sketching and showing his subjects their portraits.  Although some of the portraits are unfinished and have rushed brush strokes, owing to the haste with which Catlin painted, the subjects override the occasional dearth of technical skill. Catlin truly captures the considered expressions of his subjects, obviously aware of how acculturation was altering their society. A particularly interesting portrait documents the change of one Wi-Jun-Jon after his first visit to Western America. His profile is depicted in traditional dress, including the Mandan shirt, one of which is exhibited alongside the portraits. The other half of the painting depicts him with his back facing the audience; he is shown fully ‘westernised’. He wears a full suit, top hat and holds a fan, illustrating how all aspects of culture and custom were to be affected with the arrival of the West.

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The portrait of La-Doo-Ke-A or Buffalo Bull is also notable for its influence in the later legend of Buffalo Bill. A Grand Pawnee Warrior, he sits with arrow in hand and the Buffalo horns across his chest. The portraits display the colourful ornamentation and ceremony of American Indian tradition in a manner that only a great showman could do justice to.   

Catlin’s work, as he intended, captures an important moment in world history. Many of the people depicted in his portraits would soon be affected by catastrophic smallpox outbreaks, but their memory lives in the ethnography of Catlin’s collection. The vibrancy of the American Indian people is caught in the russet ochre and burnt reds of the portraits, which remain to be a colourfully historical tribute to their subjects.