phone mail2 facebook twitter play
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

7 March 2013 Rachel Ridge  | Art Architecture Design  | London Life

This March, The National Portrait Gallery opens American Indian Portraits by 19th century, American painter George Catlin. Co-curator Stephanie Pratt, who has a direct ancestral link to one of the portraits, hopes the exhibition will question why the attempted genocide of this culture “has not been documented enough."

Through history, the image of the American Indian is one that has been proliferated time and time again. So embedded in America’s psyche are Wild West films, games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and Native American dressing up costumes, that it’s difficult to find an honest, historical document of this vanished race. George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, on at The National Portrait Gallery and made up of arresting portraits of American Indian chiefs, war leaders and warriors, explores a painter who introduced the image of the noble native American to the world. An image which has since then taken on a life of it’s own.

Relatively unknown in England, George Catlin is held up by Americans as an esteemed pioneer that caught a very important moment in their cultural history. It was the impending genocide of these nations in the 19th century, such as the infamous ‘trail of tears’ in 1831 which saw 4000 different Native American races die whilst being forced from their land to a designated ‘Indian territory’, that stirred Catlin to manically document what he believed to be a dying race. Being the first painter to travel into the west and illustrate the indigenous people of the Americas in their own environment, Catlin gave a voice to this dehumanised and uprooted nation. Portrait of Black Hawk illustrates the famous Native American war leader, who led uprisings against the Anglo Americans. By showing the American public dignified portrayals of figures the government viewed essentially as criminals, the controversial nature of Catlin’s work and its importance in preserving the image of the American Indian is unparalleled.

The exhibition reveals Catlin harboured the beginnings of what we would now call ethnography, shown in his collection of indigenous artefacts and clothing. But also, the special attention he paid to the ethnicity of these varied tribes, with the detailed features of each sitter jumping out of warm earthy red and orange tones in expressions of quiet strength and wisdom. Shut your mouth, a published book by Catlin, observes how Native Americans’ habit of closing their mouth and breathing through their nose promotes deeper sleep, stronger teeth, fewer physical ailments and better mental health, a discovery later proved by modern science.

In between continuous portraits, there are paintings that offer a window into a set of mysterious, sacred traditions. Ceremonial scalp dances, elaborate fertility rituals and gruelling tests of stamina and spirit of young men, captured by an enraptured artist - sketching on the sidelines – were to meet global eyes for the first time. A framed newspaper cutting lays bare the controversial reaction of a society unable to see these figures as anything more than savages, which reads “the horrible religious ceremonies of several of the Indian tribes… show what atrocities human nature can arrive when the presence of religious knowledge is not interspersed to prevent it’s career.”

A large grid of chief portraits fills a wall and remains the most striking element of the whole exhibition. In sheer scale alone, these displaced ancestors loom over the viewer quite powerfully, lamenting, it seems, their crudely uprooted heritage. Interestingly, co-curator Stephanie Pratt spoke of a direct ancestral link to the painting of chief Big Eagle (Black Dog). She hopes the exhibition will question why the attempted genocide of this culture “has not been documented enough” and claims “there hasn’t even been an apology.”

Being the only body of work of this size dedicated to the exploration of Native Americans, it’s clear to see that if it weren’t for Catlin there would be a gaping chasm in the remembrance of this now extinct culture.

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits is on at the National Portrait Gallery until the 23rd June 2013

Tell us what you think

You may also like

Courses to Inspire this Autumn at Morley College

Courses to Inspire this Autumn at Morley College

Learn a new skill with the wide range of courses on offer at Morley College - from singing to creative writing.

London’s Roundhouse presents Ron Arad’s Curtain Call

London’s Roundhouse presents Ron Arad’s Curtain Call

In order to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Roundhouse is once more hosting Ron Arad's Curtain Call, an incredible, immersive art installation that will excite...

Proud Chelsea Presents - Image of an Icon: A Collaborative Exhibition

Proud Chelsea Presents - Image of an Icon: A Collaborative Exhibition

If you’ve ever wished you could be in the same room as some of the greatest and most influential icons of the 20th Century,...

Discover Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle

Discover Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle

Discover four brilliant venues displaying a huge range of gorgeous sculpture across Yorkshire.

Forced Collaborations - An interview with artist Paul Stephenson

Forced Collaborations - An interview with artist Paul Stephenson

London-based artist Paul Stephenson introduced his three newest bodies of work, ‘Watermark Paintings’, ‘Internet Paintings’, and ‘Reflection Paintings’ to a buzzing and eclectic crowd this...

This Week 1st – 7th August

This Week 1st – 7th August

As we move into summer proper, we all need a little break. But it’s not necessary to head abroad to enjoy sun, nature, great...

Paths To Utopia

Paths To Utopia

This new exhibition at King’s College is part of the wider celebrations of Thomas More’s book Utopia. It explores what Utopia means to...

Hughie O’Donoghue’s Seven Halts on The Somme

Hughie O’Donoghue’s Seven Halts on The Somme

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In order to commemorate that tragic loss of life, British artist Hughie O’Donoghue...

A River Runs Through It at gallery@oxo at Oxo Tower Wharf

A River Runs Through It at gallery@oxo at Oxo Tower Wharf

An exhibition of art inspired by London and its ever-changing landscape

Top 5 Spots for Dogs and Their Owners

Top 5 Spots for Dogs and Their Owners

They say there aren’t enough green spaces. They say that canines make for expensive pets. They say that busy city-dwellers just don’t have...

More inspiration

The Taming of the Shrew meets the 80s rave scene - An Interview with Get Over It Productions’ Velenzia Spearpoint.

The Taming of the Shrew meets the 80s rave scene - An Interview with Get Over It Productions’ Velenzia Spearpoint.

In celebration of their ten-year anniversary of performing with the Camden Fringe, all-female theatre group Get Over It Productions are bringing their own unique version...

“He’s an ordinary man who did extraordinary things” - An Interview with Michael Williams about The Mandela Trilogy

“He’s an ordinary man who did extraordinary things” - An Interview with Michael Williams about The Mandela Trilogy

The Mandela Trilogy is making its London debut at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall this month as part of the Africa Utopia festival, a...

This Week 22nd - 28th August

This Week 22nd - 28th August

With the Olympics over and the back-to-school shadow looming, you might be thinking the summer is well and truly over. Well, we’re here to...

A Guide to Vintage Shopping in London

A Guide to Vintage Shopping in London

Ever feel like there’s just nothing for you on the high street? Do you walk into mainstream clothes shop and despair at the fact...

Interview with Mark Leipacher : Shakespeare at Selfridge’s

Interview with Mark Leipacher : Shakespeare at Selfridge’s

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Selfridge’s has launched The refashioned Theatre, a pop-up space that will host a programme of...

Your inbox deserves a little culture!