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George Catlin: American Indian Portraits

June 3, 2013

ArtsPainting | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford


Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum
Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin was a man with a mission; back in 1830s America nothing much was being done to stop the invading of Native American’s lands and the destruction of their way of life. Catlin stood alone in his attempts to preserve the culture of these people and as a result of this one-man-mission the Indian Gallery was born.

 

A collection of over 50 paintings detailing clothing, weapons, facial features and native Indian customs, this staggering compendium of works remain one of the most extensive documentations of the American Indian culture. All painted by the self-taught explorer, Catlin brought them back from his expeditions and they toured America and Europe for the next ten years. The group of works hasn’t been seen all together in the UK since the 1950s so this is a rare opportunity to view the beauty of these works as a collection.

 

La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum
La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee, George Catlin, 1832, ©Smithsonian American Art Museum

Besides being a visual documentation of a disappearing culture, Catlin’s paintings are works of art in themselves – they are emotionally charged windows into the lives of the individuals who sat for him. Catlin’s palette of earthy browns, yellows, greens and reds are suggestive of the warm open plains the American Indians lived on. The intensity of the colours deepen in the handful of group paintings, such as ‘Scalp dance, Mouth of the Teton River’ 1844-8, that depict more intense scenes full of drama and excitement. A number of paintings are unfinished, they show Catlin’s working process of sketching out the figure in brown paint before finishing off the important details like the face, tribal markings, adornments and headdresses. He would then leave the rest to complete at a later point without the sitter. ‘La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior Pawnee’ 1932 is a good example of this where the top half of the sitter and the detailing on his footwear has been finished but the rest of the painting remains rough and uncoloured.

 

An amazing collection both as works of art and historic records, this is your last chance to view Catlin’s 50 plus majestic portraits of the American Indian people. George Catlin: American Indian Portraits continues at the National Portrait Gallery until the 23rd June. Admission is free and you can find more information online at – npg.org.uk

 

Words Kirsty Sapsford

Junior Arts Editor