This is something I wrote after visiting the exhibition of George Catlin’s American Indian Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
What are we looking at here? Catlin’s portraits, most at least started during his trips to the West in the 1830s though a number were only completed in Europe 10 or 20 years later, have defined our images of Native Americans ever since. Yet they raise far more questions than they answer.
In the relatively few pictures of Indians en masse (‘Scalp Dance’, 1844-8; ‘Mandan O-Kee-Pa Ceremony’, 1832), the figures seem demonic, threatening, there’s a distinct sense that Catlin is uneasy with what he is witnessing. Yet the portraits which make up the majority of this exhibition, mostly head and shoulders with the subjects staring directly out at us, convey a grandeur and nobility that seems to be a the heart of Catlin’s enterprise. Here we witness a belief in the noble savage that comes across clearly when dealing with individuals, but is maybe not so easy to sustain when dealing with the tribe.
That Catlin had an ethnographic, not to say a moralistic, intent, is most obvious in his double portrait of Wi-Jun-Jon or Pigeon’s Egg Head before and after a visit to Washington (1837-9). On the left he is standing nobly in ceremonial costume; on the right he is strutting in Western dress, sporting a top hat, carrying a fan, smoking a cigarette and with two bottles of whisky jutting from his back pockets. But the picture was painted at least five years after Catlin had encountered Wi-Jun-Jon on his return from Washington, and ignores the fact that many Native Americans had already begun to adopt European dress.
What we get, therefore, is an attempt to preserve a way of life that Catlin saw as under threat from the East. He was a self-taught artist and many of his pictures are so naïve as to convey nothing of their subject, such as his painting of the 12-year-old Pshan-Shaw, Sweet-Scented Grass (1832). But in the main, in portraits like Stu-Mick-O-Sucks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat (1832), Muk-A-Tah-Mish-O-Kah-Kaik, Black Hawk (1832), or Osceola, The Black Drink Singer (1838), we get strong faces strongly drawn. We are meant to see the humanity, the personality, the potency of these individuals; and we do.
Whether the subjects of these portraits saw it that way is another matter. The robes they wore, the symbols they carried, the way they painted their faces were not everyday wear. They had put on their Sunday best. They were, in other words, presenting an image to the white man, and possibly for the white man. Late in the exhibition is a small group of portraits of Iowa Indians, such as No-Ho-Mun-Ya, One Who Gives No Attention (1844) and Wash-Ka-Mon-Ya, Fast Dancer (1844). In their robes, their elaborate ornaments, their face paint, their noble mien, they are indistinguishable from the earlier portraits. Yet they had come to London and Paris to take part in the shows Catlin was staging alongside the exhibitions of his paintings, and we cannot know how much of what we see here is a performance.
At the heart of the exhibition we come to a wall crowded with portraits, all the same size, all in the same black frame, each jammed against the next. It’s difficult to take in at first, hard to see the individuals as we do in a more conventional hanging, but it replicates the way these portraits were originally displayed at the Smithsonian. It is a way of losing the individual within the mass, but take each one separately, look them in the eye, these are fascinating characters even if we don’t really know the story they are trying to tell.