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Catlin’s “noble savage”: “Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe Blackfoot/Kainai” (1832)

George Catlin (1796-1872) was as much an anthropologist as an artist. The portraits he painted in the 1830s and 1840s of North American Indians were made to record a "vanishing race". "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy of the lifetime of one man," he wrote, "and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and becoming their historian." So, in a race against time, he set about recording them.

A fascinating selection of his pictures is on show in the National Portrait Gallery (until June 23), the first time many of them have been seen here since 1840 when Catlin brought his "Indian Gallery" to Europe. The peoples he painted were ranged across America, from the Mohawks of New York State to the Cheyenne of South Dakota and the Shoshokies of California. There was something of his contemporary John James Audubon about Catlin's quest. He too set about capturing the plumage of native species in colourful and artful illustrations. Just as there was not one species of bird so Catlin laid out the diversity of America's indigenous population. By showing individuals in their natural habitat and raiment he also hoped to question the ethnic hierarchy that placed the white man at the top and the generic American Indians way beneath them.

Catlin's project had a degree of urgency because in 1830 President Jackson's Removal Act set in train the expulsion of the American Indians to the western part of the country beyond the Mississippi river, with white settlers taking over the tribal lands. The Act led to a fresh outbreak of the Indian Wars which weren't ended until the Massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890. By then the "dying Indian" was already an established literary device on both sides of the Atlantic, used by writers as diverse as Chateaubriand (Atala, 1801) and Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826). Catlin himself was deeply affected by the idea of the noble savage, likening his sitters to the "knights" and "lords" of the forest and prairie, each with "his snorting steed, with his bow and quiver slung, his arrow-shield upon his arm, his long lance glistening in the war-parade".

Catlin was not the only artist to paint the native peoples (in the 1580s John White had painted watercolours of the Indians around Sir Walter Raleigh's nascent Roanoke colony in modern North Carolina) but he was the most thoroughgoing. The fact that his own mother had once been taken prisoner did not deter him and during the 1830s Catlin made five journeys beyond the then western frontier of the United States. He travelled with fur trappers and frontiersmen as well as the army. In 1834 he nearly died from an illness that killed a quarter of the troops he was accompanying.

His closeness to the army meant that he had access to the captured war chiefs who had led the resistance. So he came to paint such men as Black Hawk and Osceola (the native commander during the Second Seminole War of 1835-42, which cost more money and lives than any other conflict). The portraits had a sensational appeal but together they also recorded not just the faces — and these are proper portraits — but the dress and customs of the vanquished peoples. For Catlin these fighters were not war criminals but men "whose whole lives are lives of chivalry, and whose daily feats with their naked limbs, might vie with those of the Grecian youths in the beautiful rivalry of the olympian games".

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