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George Catlin: American Indian Portraits
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

7 March 2013 Rachel Ridge

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films, games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and Native American dressing up costumes, that it’s difficult to find an honest, historical document of this vanished race.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

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