Catlin and Bodmer’s Native Americans

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Catlin and Bodmer’s Native Americans essay

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‘Of the thousands and millions, therefore, of these poor fellows who are dead, and whom we have thrown into their graves, there is nothing that I could now say that would do them any good while there is a debt we are owing to those of them who are yet living, which I think justly demands our attention, and all our sympathies at this moment.”[footnoteRef:1] Manifest Destiny comes to mind when discussing nineteenth century United States history. For painters like George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, who were seeking to record the Natives and their land, they saw this process unfold right before their eyes. Starting in 1830, Catlin, and later on Bodmer, went out and explored the West. Catlin was traveling with fur traders, and made it to Fort Union at the junction of Yellowstone and the Missouri. Bodmer accompanied Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied on a scientific expedition to the upper Missouri country. These two captured the likeness of the Natives and their land; Bodmer’s work is said to be superior compared to others who have painted similar subject matters.[footnoteRef:2] However, it seems there was more to just painting Native Americans and uninhabited lands. Catlin and Bodmer set out to paint the Native Americans in the landscape in order to preserve the “lost” culture of the “vanishing race”. [1: George Catlin American Realist Painter Art Quotes. Accessed May 22, 2019. http://www.historyofpainters.com/catlin.htm. ] [2: William H. Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America (Joslyn Art Museum & University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 3-4. ]

If one is to examine landscape painting during the nineteenth century, it’s important to understand the ideologies that were present at the time.

In 1845, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “manifest destiny” to describe the ideology of continental expansionism. Though the term was new, the ideas underlying it were much older, dating back to the first colonial contact between Europeans and Native Americans. The ideology that became known as “manifest destiny” included a belief in the inherent superiority of white European-Americans, as well as the conviction that whites were destined by God to conquer the territories of North America, from sea to shining sea.[footnoteRef:3] [3: ‘Manifest Destiny.’ Khan Academy. Accessed May 22, 2019. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-early-republic/age-of-jackson/a/manifest-destiny.]

Along with this thought process, the European-Americans believed the Native Americans were a thorn in their side when it came to making progress towards the West. They took extreme measures to remove the Natives, along with exterminating a good majority of them. Luckily, for Catlin and Bodmer, they were able to observe and record the Native Americans before this process went into full affect. However, what they recorded were the last remaining remnants of a race which had already been altered by European-Americans.

For George Catlin, recording the Natives became more than just an ethnographic venture. He genuinely felt sorry for the Native Americans. “Whatever racist notions of the day must have been embedded in his imagination, Catlin placed great value on Indians and their cultures, revealing genuine concern at how they were being systematically stressed or destroyed by non-Indians.” [footnoteRef:4] George Catlin was born on July 26th, 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was the fifth out of fourteen children. His father, Putnam Catlin, served in the Revolutionary War and trained in law. Putnam pushed George into becoming a lawyer, and by 1817, George was off to Litchfield, Connecticut to study law. However, by 1821, George quit his firm to become an artist. Even though his father was disappointed by this decision, he encouraged George to imitate the greats such as Michelangelo, Rubens, Raphael and others. By 1827, he moved to New York to become a portrait painter. He had specialized in miniature painting, but Catlin wanted to expand his artistic abilities. He had trouble in regards to his proportions of his figures. Nevertheless, he was able to capture the likeness and character of his subjects. Catlin’s reasons for getting into Native American portraiture is still up in the air, but a visit to Philadelphia in 1828 would set the course for his artistic career.[footnoteRef:5] [4: Brian William Dippie et al., George Catlin and His Indian Gallery (Washington DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2002), Quote by W. Richard West, 21. ] [5: Dippie et al., George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, 29 – 30. ]

While in Philadelphia, Catlin had come across a visiting delegation of western Indians. He was overcome with such excitement and enthusiasm, he decided to pursue painting the Native Americans of the West. By 1830, he met up with William Clark, one of the notable figures of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Clark had taken Catlin up the Mississippi to Fort Crawford. Later on, they traveled on to Fort Leavenworth at the elbow of the Missouri River. From his travels with William Clark, Catlin absorbed a wealth of information from Clark’s travel experiences, along with his knowledge of the Plains tribes.[footnoteRef:6] From 1830-1836, Catlin traveled the frontier “visiting fifty tribes west of the Mississippi, from present-day North Dakota to Oklahoma, and creating an astonishing visual record of Native American life.”[footnoteRef:7] [6: Dippie et al., George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, 32.] [7: ‘George Catlin.’ Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://americanart.si.edu/artist/george-catlin-782.]

Not to say he did not care for the Native Americans as much as Catlin, but in Karl Bodmer’s case, it seems like he was strictly in the United States for ethnographic purposes. Bodmer was born on February 11th, 1809 in Zurich, Switzerland. His father, Heinrich Bodmer, was a local cotton merchant. “Evidently Bodmer demonstrated his artistic talent early, for in 1822, at the age of thirteen, his maternal uncle, the painter Johann Jakob Meier (1787-1858), undertook his continued instruction, just as he had done for Karl’s elder brother Rudolf (1805-1841) a few years earlier.”[footnoteRef:8] Karl and Rudolf traveled with their uncle Johann throughout Switzerland, each learning the fundamentals of engraving, sketching, and watercolor painting. Karl immediately took to sketching and watercolor painting much better than his brother Rudolf, and by the age of nineteen, Karl had published his first known sketch of a mountain bridge in Glarus canton.[footnoteRef:9] [8: Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America, 351. ] [9: Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America, 351.]

As stated earlier, Bodmer’s involvement with painting Native Americans in the landscape was much different than Catlin’s. Bodmer had caught the attention of Prince Maximilian of Wied, who was an explorer. Maximilian had traveled to South America in 1815, specifically Brazil, to collect data on specimens, document the customs and languages of the indigenous tribes, along with recording his own thoughts and details of the excursion. Once he finished up putting together his work from his South American excursion, he began to plan out another journey. This time, North America would be his destination. Prince Maximilian writes in a letter to a friend,

I think the interior regions of the Missouri would be highly interesting because of its tribes?… Doesn’t North America also have much of interest for botany? Then I would want to bring along a draftsman who would not be too much of a burden on my pocketbook but could pay at least part of his way – certainly a rarity which will not be easy to find![footnoteRef:10] [10: Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America, 352.]

After tough negotiations, Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer settled on a contract. Bodmer’s salary would be forty-five thalers (silver coin) a month, he could keep twelve studies as well as copy landscapes upon his return to Europe. After a set time period determined by Prince Maximilian, Bodmer would then be able to publish his works.[footnoteRef:11] From 1832 to 1834, Bodmer would create eighty-one works, along with studies such as the Mandan and Blackfeet tribes, who were unfortunately decimated by the great smallpox epidemic of 1837. [11: Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America, 353.]

It’s no surprise to see Bodmer and Catlin written about together when discussing Native Americans in landscape painting. They are considered to be the first ones to go and document the Natives of the West before they were taken over by civilization. Author and environmental historian William Cronon discusses Bodmer and Catlin in his article Telling Tales on Canvas: Landscapes of Frontier Change. His main point of the article is, “19th-century painters worked within a grand narrative tradition, more or less summarized by Turner’s classic frontier thesis, in which each individual landscape scene became an icon of environmental transformation and national progress.”[footnoteRef:12] For those who are not familiar with Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis of 1893, he explains how the American Democracy was founded by the American Frontier.[footnoteRef:13] For the purposes of this essay, it will be focusing on Cronon’s discussion of the “Vanishing World (and a ‘Vanishing Race’).” He speaks on how Euro-Americans’ main goal was to document the Natives before they completely vanish from history. He points out an interesting aspect of both Bodmer and Catlin’s paintings. Cronon states, [12: “Telling Tales on Canvas: Mythic Narratives of Frontier Change,” last modified September 29, 2018, https://www.williamcronon.net/courses/469/handouts/469-telling-tales-on-canvas.html.] [13: “Frederick Jackson Turner,” last modified 2001, https://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/people/s_z/turner.htm.]

In spite of their extraordinary quality, though, Bodmer’s images share with Catlin’s a failing common to all artists who adopted the first encounter as the narrative moment for their paintings. In fact, virtually no image that purports to record such an encounter actually does so, since most painters came quite late to the frontier areas they visited. (John White is again the chief anomaly.) Bodmer and Catlin visited tribes that had been interacting with white traders for decades, and tribal communities had been incorporating elements of European culture – most notably the horse – for well over a century. The ethnographic impulse to record a “pristine” or “unspoiled” culture, and the associated need to suppress Indian history by depicting timeless peoples in unchanging landscapes, encouraged artists to erase evidence that Indians and Europeans had already mingled quite profoundly by the time an image was made.[footnoteRef:14] [14: Jules David Prown et al., Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts:Transforming Visions of the American West (Yale University), 1992, 55-56. ]

The validity of his argument is proven by the fact George Catlin had at one point traveled with fur traders to visit some of these tribes. As for Bodmer, he had the pleasure of traveling with an experienced explorer.

Another noteworthy aspect that Cronon highlights within his argument is how Catlin and Bodmer portrayed themselves in their “first encounter” artworks. The Travellers Meeting with Minatarre Indians near Fort Clark, c. 1854, by Karl Bodmer is an interesting piece to look at. Towards the right side of the composition, the viewer sees Bodmer and Prince Maximilian staring intently at the Minatarre natives. Bodmer sports a brown tweed jacket with a top hat and striped pants, while Prince Maximilian wears a green jacket, white pants, and what seems to be an explorer’s hat. Both men are wielding rifles, which could indicate they were hunting, want to protect themselves from any danger, or both. To the left of Bodmer and Prince Maximilian is a Native American who seems to be interpreting for them. The gesture of the Native American shows the viewer he is trying to explain to his chief what intentions Bodmer and Prince Maximilian have for their visit to the Fort. On the left side of the composition, the viewer sees a group of Natives surrounding this beautiful gray and white steed whose head looks down in embarrassment. The Native in the center of the composition is most likely the chief. He’s clearly interacting with his interpreter, who would then relay his message to Bodmer and Prince Max. However, what’s most interesting about this figure is the top hat he is wearing. Within the band of the top hat is a feather and possibly a bouquet of flowers in the front. Top hats are not seen as traditional wear for Native Americans, so where could he have possibly obtained this article of clothing? One can guess from either trading with a Euro-American, or possibly taking it off the corpse of a dead Euro-American. Not to mention, the Native to the left with his back towards the viewer has his rifle planted into the ground. If this hand painted aquatint was suppose to represent a “first encounter” meeting between Europeans and Native Americans, why would the Natives be represented with objects that are pertinent to European culture?[footnoteRef:15] [15: Prown et al., Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts:Transforming Visions of the American West, 57. ]

George Catlin’s The Author Painting a Chief in an Indian Village, 1841, presents a narrative somewhat different to Bodmer’s piece. The two central figures of the sketch are Catlin, situated to the right, and a Native American Chief on the left. Catlin displays a strong stance while stroking his brush on the canvas. The Chief radiates this calm feeling while posing for the Pennsylvanian painter. Surrounding the both of them is a crowd of Natives old and young. If one were to examine the composition closely, they would notice the facial expressions among the crowd. Some are in awe, while others look frightened. In the foreground, the Natives lying down seem to be intrigued by Catlin’s artistic ability. Now, if one were to scrutinize the artwork even further, they would see the drawings on the teepee, which is placed in the background in between Catlin and the Chief. The teepee displays a figure holding a rifle on the right, and another figure riding a horse on the left. It’s safe to say these figures on the teepee are meant to represent the Native people. If Catlin was trying to pass this off as a “first encounter” meeting, he probably should not have added the rifle or horse in the composition. Once again, the viewer is left to question why there are European objects in an artwork that is suppose to represent an authentic setting of the Native people.[footnoteRef:16] [16: Prown et al., Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts:Transforming Visions of the American West, 57. ]

Both Bodmer and Catlin traveled and explored the West with the intention of documenting the Native Americans and their customs. They did their best to authentically capture the Natives’ customs and traditions, but could not escape the European influence that had already taken place. One could argue Bodmer and Catlin were able to authentically capture the appearance of the Natives in their traditional wear and make-up. George Catlin had painted some portraits of these traveling Iowan Natives, who came to London and Paris between 1844-1845, to perform dances and demonstrations of their indigenous Plains lifestyles. There were fourteen in total. One of the notable paintings of this series is No-Ho-Mun-Ya (One Who Gives No Attention), 1844. The warrior is portrayed in a three quarter portrait, with only the top half of his body displayed. There is no direct gaze towards the viewer, but one could tell he fixed his attention on something outside of the frame. From the top of his head down to his neck, he’s painted in red with streaks of green. There are two green lines on his forehead, and several streaks of green on each cheek. Within those green streaks are red “x” marks. The only part of his face that is free from the red paint is his mouth area. His hair cut resembles that of a mohawk, and within his hair lies an eagle feather at the top. His ears are filled to the brim with earrings. Around his neck is a shell gorget with two little figures dancing in sync, along with a bear-claw necklace. Around his shoulders, presumably covering his upper torso, is a buffalo robe. The background of the piece presents itself as a blue sky with a few patches of clouds. “Catlin referred to One Who Gives No Attention as the ‘finest looking man of the party’ and this portrait shows him displaying many of the honours that Iowa warriors would receive as symbols of their status.”[footnoteRef:17] [17: Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli, George Catlin: American Indian Portraits, (London: National Portrait Gallery), 2013, 162.]

Wash-Ka-Mon-Ya (Fast Dancer, A Warrior), 1844, is another notable painting from Catlin’s series. He is also portrayed in a three quarter portrait, but this time around the warrior is directly making eye contact with the viewer. The right side of his face along with his neck is covered in red paint. His forehead has a faint green streak with a red zig zag piercing through it. The most interesting mark on his face would be the dark green handprint that stems from his chin, upward towards the right side of his face. The hand is believed to be a representation of his loyalty to a chief by the name of Notch-ee-ning-a, or White Cloud. In White Cloud’s portrait, he also has a dark green handprint on his face. For him, the painted hand represents his skill in hand-to-hand combat.[footnoteRef:18] Also, “the handprints on Fast Dancer’s chin and cheeks probably signify that he had killed an enemy in hand to hand combat.”[footnoteRef:19] Fast Dancer’s hair resembles that of One Who Gives No Attention, but differs in that part of his hair is slicked back. He also has an eagle feather sticking up at the top. The necklaces that hang from his neck are decorative. He too has a shell gorget, but the front of it is plain. The clothing he wears is presumed to be some sort of animal hide, with red and green handprints placed on it.[footnoteRef:20] [18: ‘Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas,’ accessed May 21st, 2019, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/us-art-19c/romanticism-us/a/catlin-the-white-cloud-head-chief-of-the-iowas.] [19: Dippie et al., George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, 229. ] [20: Pratt and Troccoli, George Catlin: American Indian Portraits,164.]

Karl Bodmer’s Massika, Sauk Man, 1833 is similar to Catlin’s representations of the Natives. Here the viewer sees the profile of Massika, his eyes intently focused upward, possibly looking at the sky. His whole face and even parts of his hair are red. On his left cheek, there are black tick marks starting from the bottom of his left eye close to his jawline. Most of his hair is shaven. The only thing that hangs from his scalp is a long braid with a roach made of stiff deer hair. On his ear he has shell beads, and wrapped around him is a red blanket. “Massika (‘Turtle’) was one of the several Sauk and Fox who came to St. Louis in March of 1833 to plead for the release of Black Hawk, a chief who had been imprisoned after an 1832 uprising.” For this artwork in particular, Prince Maximilian wanted Massika to be portrayed like this. One could only imagine Bodmer capturing this moment as quickly as possible without trying to leave out any important details.[footnoteRef:21] [21: Goetzmann et al., Karl Bodmer’s America, 132.]

Catlin and Bodmer did their best to try and capture the Native Americans as authentically as possible. To say they preserved a “lost”culture through their artwork is true to a degree. Society no longer sees the Natives in their traditional wardrobe and make-up, except for special occasions. Along with that, their way of life had already been altered due to European contact. There is no doubt their artworks have made a huge impact on our understanding of the Native Americans during the nineteenth century. If they did not go out and document these people and moments in time, how could one begin to visualize what these people and their traditional customs looked like?


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  9. Pratt, Stephanie, Joan Carpenter. Troccoli, and George Catlin. George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery in Collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC, 2013.
  10. Khan Academy. ‘Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas.’ Accessed May 21, 2019. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/us-art-19c/romanticism-us/a/catlin-the-white-cloud-head-chief-of-the-iowas.
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