Great Artists of the Indian past
Canadian & American Artists of America's Original People
To remind people of the glory of the original culture of First Nations Peoples, we publish - on most of our web pages - a stunning portrait of an important First Nations leader, resplendent in tribal gear, as captured by leading artists in the early and middle nineteenth century.

At that time the "border" between Canada and the US was not clearly defined, and certainly not recognized by First Nations Peoples, like the Iroquois, the Chippewa, and the Sioux around the Great Lakes Region, as applying to them.

The Chiefs painted by Catlin, King, and Kane, did not regard themselves as Americans or Canadians, but as Sioux, Chippewa, or Iroquois First Peoples.

In that spirit we present their images here, not as representatives of this or that country, but as resplendent spokesmen for their people, the original First Peoples of America.

Tenskwautawaw - Tecumseh's Brother
Painter - Charles Bird King 1820s

Great Painters of a Glorious Past  

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century white civilization, both in Canada and the United States, was pushing relentlessly westward, ruthlessly pushing aside the First Nations peoples who lived there. The cultural clash led to bloodshed, especially in the United States. The mission, among many whites, was the extinction of America's original peoples.

There were several white men of distinction who dared to think outside the box, who saw Indians not as vermin to be exterminated, but as a unique people whose culture should be celebrated, and whose uniqueness should be preserved for all time, so that future generations could marvel at the America that once was, before it disappeared under the obliterating jackboot of advancing white civilization.

After the War of 1812, which featured bloody battles against Indians fighting for their survival, the US government made peace with the British. It could now devote all its energies in the campaign to exterminate the Red Man from America, and make their territories accessible to land speculators and for white settlers, ranchers, miners, farmers and businessmen of every sort.

Many white men in America celebrated the coming end of the "Red Menace;" others, like these painters, deeply regretted the passing of the traditional lifestyles of Native North Americans.

"Thomas McKenney 1785-1859: After the War of 1812 the American Government transported Indian chiefs, resplendent in their tribal finery, from the western and Great Lakes regions, to Washington, DC, to sign away their lands.

In 1816 Thomas McKenney was appointed, by the US War Department, to supervise government relations with America's Indian people. Over the next twenty years he used his office to champion the preservation of the culture of the American Indian, becoming the first head of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. During that time he commissioned artists to paint what he saw as a vanishing national resource, the original peoples of America.

McKenney hired Charles Bird King to paint most of the spectacular portraits of Indian chiefs and warriors for his War Department Gallery of the American Indian.

He also commissioned a few others including Peter Rindisbacher, who had come to Canada's Red River Colony and started painting Indians there. Rindisbacher had a unique style of painting that makes his superb art instantly recognizable

After he was dismissed from government McKenney compiled what is probably the finest ethnographic portfolio of American lithographs ever produced, featuring 120 superb portraits of the leading Indian chiefs of America in the early 19th century, including Joseph Brant, Thayendanegea and Ahyouwaighs of the Six Nations.

McKenney & Hall: Thomas McKenney compiled the pictures and wrote the biographies of the chiefs that accompanied the portraits, based on interviews he conducted when they came to Washington, DC, or when he made field trips into the wilderness regions of the American west. He engaged James Hall 1793-1868, a lawyer who had written extensively on the west, to write the general history of the North American Indian which accompanied the pictures.

McKenney & Hall's, three volume set, "The History of the Indian Tribes of North America," issued in 1837-1844, is probably the finest ethnographic work ever produced in America. The lithographs were hand coloured. The first sets were issued in folio size - pages were 14 x 20 inches. A smaller octavo size printing was also made so that more people could afford them.

Single lithographs, disbound from these original volumes, sell for hundreds of dollars (US) each, some, like Keokuk, right, sell for as high as $5,500.

Fire! The original paintings were hung in the Smithsonian until all but five were destroyed in a fire in 1865. Luckily McKenney had been secretly smuggling the portraits out of the museum to be copied by Henry Inman, and then returned. Today only the lithographs from his volumes show what Charles Bird King's original portraits looked like.

George Catlin 1796-1872: Another American painter, George Catlin, believed he had a personal mission to paint and record the vanishing civilization of the American Indian. Thomas McKenney had tried to get Catlin involved in his Indian history project; but Catlin - ever the artist - preferred being a one man band.

Catlin had been born in Pennsylvania, when it was wild Indian country - his mother had even been captured by them. Catlin became a lawyer but quickly gave it up to devote himself, full time, to pursue his primary passion, preserving, through his art, the culture and life style of the American Indian.

While McKenney was organizing his monumental work, George Catlin spent the years 1830-1836 travelling across the American west and painting Indians in their habitat. He was a self-taught artist.

Catlin tried to get the US Congress to buy his paintings; it was a losing cause. After all this was the same Congress that approved sending out the American Army and local militias to massacre Indians wherever they could be found.

Catlin's art and mission were much more enthusiastically embraced in Europe.

Catlin's art was dictated by having very little time to paint on his trips. He has been called the "fastest brush in the west." It affected his art. He was more a documentary painter than an artist. But he did not consider himself a camera, concerned with the detail of surface gloss - like contemporary Karl Bodmer. He wanted to capture the inner essence of what it meant to be an Indian.

Time constraints and his enthusiasm for his subjects made him try to get the essentials and leave the rest. His landscape paintings showed the place but lacked perspective and missed showing the grandeur of the settings he described in his diaries. His use of colour was flat. His full portraits were often unsatisfying, featuring heads that were too big, or too small.

His portraits of faces were unequalled in excellence. He managed to capture the power and dignity of each individual and also convey the racial distinctiveness of the Aboriginal chiefs he portrayed. Unlike in Hollywood, where white men, for decades, played the part of Indians, there is no white man hiding in Catlin's portraits. They are indeed unassailably a totally unique and First People's creation.

Unlike so many Indians painted today Catlin's people are amazingly distinct, just like the Creator intended them to be.

But far more than being just a recorder of Indian life, Catlin was a publicist extraordinaire, of the American Indian. As well as painting Indians Catlin collected thousands of Indian artifacts on his travels, everything that Indians manufactured for their daily life and rituals. Then he took them on tour.

In 1833 he started taking the Catlin Gallery of paintings and artifacts on tour to major cities in the American east. It enthralled audiences.

In 1839 he took eight tons of artifacts to London England where his "Wild West" show of the American Indian - decades before Buffalo Bill - played to huge audiences. For five years he enthralled British audiences with his Indian Gallery which featured live Indians dancing, singing, and fighting mock battles. Catlin became a national celebrity.

In 1845, at the request of King Louis-Philippe of France, he installed his show in the Louvre in Paris and amazed French audiences.

Catlin was a public lecturer on the American West and book publisher. In 1841 he published the two volume "Letters, and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions, of the North American Indian." It brought before the public one of the first detailed and illustrated books of life in the American West.

But Catlin died without ever succeeding in getting the US Congress, or the American Government, to buy his priceless paintings and artifacts of the American Indian.

Paul Kane: A contemporary of Catlins was Paul Kane who travelled the Canadian West in the 1840s.

Edmund Morris: At the end of the 19th century Edmund Morris created the most important collection of Canadian Indian portraits in existence.

They are showcased in a central hall in the Legislature of Saskatchewan in Regina.

John S Perry: Another early 20th century painter of superb Indian portraits was John Perry.

Ahyouwaighs - John Brant - Chief Six Nations
Painter - Charles Bird King 1820s
Painter - Charles Bird King 1820s
Go to Charles Bird King
Tent at Red River
Painter - Peter Rindisbacher 1821

15 year old artist, Peter Rindisbacher, an immigrant from Switzerland, painted this well known family scene inside a tent on the site where Fort Garry would later be built

Buffalo Bull's Back Fat - Chief
Painter - George Catlin 1832
Osceola - Chief
Painter - George Catlin 1832
Painter - Paul K
Painter - Paul Kane 1848
Go to Paul Kane
Chief Crowfoot
Painter - John S Perry 1920
Petocahhanewawin - Chief Poundmaker
Painter - Edmund Morris 1910
Go to Edmund Morris
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Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 2007