Tuesday, 19 March 2013

George Catlin at the National Portrait Gallery...

A selection from the National Portrait
Gallery's 'George Catlin: American Indian Portraits' exhibition
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, at National Portrait Gallery
An enthralling show of George Catlin’s portraits of endangered American Indians in the 19th-century

By Andrew Graham-Dixon
08 Mar 2013

In 1830, under the rapaciously expansionist presidency of Andrew Jackson, American Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. Native American tribes were forced ever westwards and those who resisted were killed or forcibly removed from their lands.
An enterprising painter from Philadelphia called George Catlin set out to record what he believed to be a noble but vanishing race. The hundreds of pictures that he painted, at the frontier and in the wilds, have long been prize possessions of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and a generous selection has been loaned for an enthralling new exhibition.
George Catlin: American Indian Portraits explores a figure who was painter, philanthropist and showman rolled into one; and it movingly reconstructs his most ambitious project.
In 1832 Catlin boarded the steamboat Yellow Stone, bound for Fort Union, a trading post close to what is now the Montana-North Dakota border. He painted the Blackfoot, the Crows and others who traded there, warily, with the white man. He travelled to the Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, to paint captive chiefs.
Black Hawk, Prominent Sac Chief is one of the most powerful American portraits: against a cursorily painted sky full of stormclouds, a highly articulate American Indian leader, dressed in his tribal robes and jewellery, stares into the distance with an expression of concern on his gentle, dignified, finely lined face.
He might be thinking the regretful thoughts that punctuate the autobiography he dictated a year later: “Why did the Great Spirit ever send the whites to this island to drive us from our homes and introduce among us poison liquors, disease and death? They should have remained in the land the Great Spirit allotted them...”
Catlin was no dispassionate observer. His “Indian Gallery” was both a record and a lament. While John James Audubon, in The Birds of America, recorded the many colourful species rendered extinct by the “murderous white man”, Catlin counted the human cost: tribes who have now entirely disappeared, with their clothes, hairstyles, weapons and plumage.
Prone to romantic ideas about the “Noble Savage”, Catlin improbably idealised Native American Indians as living reincarnations of the ancient Greeks: men “whose daily feats with their naked limbs, might vie with those of the Grecian youths in the Olympian games.” He may have sentimentalised them, but he also respected them.
At a time when most anthropologists imagined that Native Americans represented an inferior, primitive form of humanity, Catlin was unusually enlightened. He painted the many peoples he encountered, on his first trip and three subsequent journeys, not as grotesque curiosities, but as dignified and proud human beings with a complicated past and uncertain future.
He was limited by his training as a painter of miniatures, which meant that he never mastered anatomical drawing. Hence the boneless arms and legs of his sitters, and their unconvincing proportions. But those very weaknesses draw the eye to his greatest strength: a subtle ability to capture the human face with true fellow feeling.
Catlin toured his work round Europe with a group of American Indians who danced for Queen Victoria and other rulers. Two of his finest portraits, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe and Little Wolf, A Famous Warrior, were shown at the Paris Salon; Charles Baudelaire thought them “masterly”.
The whole Indian Gallery, all eight tons of it, comprising myriad paintings and such artefacts as a seven-foot-high teepee, was installed in London at Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in 1840: “500 portraits, dresses, scalps, wigwams!” proclaimed the flyers. “Roll up! Roll up! Admission, one shilling”.
It all went wrong. Not enough people came, and expenses far outweighed revenues. After a spell in debtor’s prison and years of fruitless madcappery – such as prospecting for gold in Brazil – the artist died penniless. But that’s another story. For now, the Catlin show is back in town. This time, entirely free.

To June 23. Free entry; npg.org.uk

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

During the 1830s Pennsylvanian-born artist George Catlin (1796-1872) made five trips to the western United States to document the Native American peoples and their way of life. The resulting portraits have become one of the most extensive, evocative and important records of indigenous peoples ever made.
Catlin was also an entrepreneur and a showman and, inspired by his encounters, he created an ‘Indian Gallery’ that toured America and Europe during the next ten years. This exhibition of over fifty portraits will be the first time that they have been seen together outside America since returning there in the 1850s. They will be displayed to suggest the sense of spectacle created by Catlin and demonstrate how he constructed a particular image of American Indians in the minds of his audience.

Organised in collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington

7 March - 23 June 2013
Admission Free

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