There are three great sources of all Indian portraits and scenes produced in the period from 1823 to 1844.
The first of these is, The Aboriginal Portfolio, published in May 1835 at Philadelphia, which contains seventy colored lithographs from oil paintings by J.O. Lewis, painted during the years 1823 to 1827 at Detroit, and at the treaties of Prairie du Chien, Fond du Lac, Massinnewa, and Green Bay.
The second source is the History of The Indian Tribes of North America with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal Chiefs embellished with one hundred and twenty portraits from the Indian Gallery in the Department of War at Washington by Thomas L. M’Kenny, who had been Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and by James Hall, Esq., of Cincinnati, Ohio, and published by Edward C. Biddle at 23 Minor Street, Philadelphia, in 1836. Many of the portraits were painted by C.B. King, who was born at Newport, England, and who studied with Leslie and Allston in London, where he worked for some years. He finally settled in Washington, U.S.A., where for forty years he was a successful portrait painter whose work was prized for its accuracy and delicacy of finish. His favourite subjects were the eminent men and women of the time and the Indians who visited their “Great Father” at Washington.
The originals of these portraits are no longer in existence; they were destroyed by fire many years ago, and it is fortunate that so many of them were redrawn, photographed, and colored by hand. While they are much inferior to the original oil portraits, yet they have unmistakable character, and bear witness to King’s ability. [page 426] Several of the pictures are by unknown artists and bear such initials as A.H.; R.T.; H.D; M.O’C.
The third source is, Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio—Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of North America, published in 1844 at Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London.
This portfolio contains twenty-five colored lithographs (by Day & Haghe), depicting the various phases of buffalo hunting, sports and pastimes; its publication occurred three years after the appearance of Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, by George Catlin, written during eight years of travel among several tribes of Indians in North America, which was published in 1841.
The life of George Catlin is a remarkable example of the successful realization of youthful aspirations. Beginning life as a lawyer, he describes how he deliberately sold his law library, and in fact everything he owned except his rifle and fishing rod, in order to equip himself as a painter. He relates that during his student years his main was continuously searching, “for some branch or enterprise of the art on which to devote a whole life time of enthusiasm” —and the sight of a group of Indian Chiefs from the far west settled his future.
He first visited and then lived in the west for eight years, travelling among the “wildest and most remote tribes of savages” from 1832 to 1839, enduring all hardships, and overcoming all difficulties, to the end that he might produce “a literal and graphic delineation of the living manners, customs and character of an interesting race of people, who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth—lending a hand to a dying nation, who have no historians or biographers of their own to portray with fidelity their native looks and history; this snatching from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity, and perpetuating it, as a fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race.”
Most of his drawings and paintings were illustrations of the literary matter of his books, and these together form one of the most valuable records of aboriginal life now extant. It is true that only a minority of these portraits and scenes appertain to Canada within its present limits, but we must remember that Indian tribes, and particularly those occupying the regions of the Great Lakes and the [page 427] prairies, attached but little significance to political boundaries at the time these portraits were made.
The Canadian Indians, many of whom are represented, were the Hurons, Ottawas, Chippewas, Assineboins, Crees, and Ojibways; the border tribes were the Pottawatomies, Sacs, Foxes, and Wyandots, occupying territory now known as Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin towards the west, and the great Iroquois Confederation of the six allied nations, the Senecas, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Mohawks and Tuscaroras, towards the east.
Canada may well claim a paramount interest in the Iroquois as being the dominant ally of the British in North America, whose territory lay athwart all lines of communication along early trade routes, and whose political astuteness under such outstanding Chiefs as Thayendanegea, Red Jacket and Cornplanter, developed and maintained a policy of loyalty to British arms which, although often weakened, was never broken, thanks to the outstanding influence of Sir William Johnson no less than to the success of British arms.
The circumstance which settled the habitat and allegiance of thousands of the border Indians was the British policy in regards to the issue of presents. The prevalence of silver medals, armlets, and gorgets may be noticed in the portraits; these represent gifts distributed by the British before the Revolutionary War, and continued by the United States until a much later date. These gifts were intended to propitiate hostile chiefs and to strengthen the allegiance of friendly ones. They took the form of personal ornaments, clasp knives, looking glasses, thimbles, blankets, Irish linen, tobacco, guns, flints, powder, balls, and clothes with such strange sounding names as moulten and ratine.
In the early days the cost of these presents was enormous, the annual British expenditure for the three years 1813 to 1816 being £150,000, and the average cost between the years 1836 and 1843 being $45,348. As these gifts were issued indiscriminately to Indians visiting the points of distribution, many Indians residing in the United States traveled long distances to share in the bounty. In 1841 the British Government advised that after 1843, the issue to Indians not actually resident in Canada, should cease, and this policy defined the national boundaries most effectually so far as Indians were concerned, as there was no longer any inducement for American Indians to visit British posts. [page 428]
A portfolio of Sketches in the Canadas after original drawings by Coke Smyth, published about 1840, also contains a few lithographs of Indians who had an exclusively Canadian habitat.
Coke Smyth was an English artist who was born early in the Nineteenth Century, and the record of whose life and work is more than meagre. He was evidently a wanderer on the face of the earth as he illustrated a series of lithographs on Turkey as well as on Canada. Although interested in the native life as he saw it from Quebec to the western plains, he was unable to shake off the artistic conventions of the old world in order to fully express the freedom and vigor of the new.
The portraits mentioned in the following catalogue have been carefully selected and form an unique record of Indian physiognomy in the early Nineteenth Century. The biographical descriptions are based on the 1830 to 1840 period, and the idioms of tribal names are given in the spelling of that decade.
The portraits are authoritative for costume, facial decoration and personal adornment, and they present the Chiefs as sitting therefor in full regalia for the benefit of posterity.
When these portraits and scenes were painted European influence had already strongly affected the lives of the aborigines; and the mixture of the native ideas of dress and adornment with the more conventional ideas of our civilization is obvious. This mixture is an index of how far, even at that time, our ways had modified aboriginal manners and customs. There is evidence also of the merging of the red and white races by marital unions formed according to the free usage of those days, which strongly influences the destiny of the tribes, and which in the coming years were to so dilute the native blood that at the present time, except in remote unsettled regions, there scarcely exists an Indian of pure descent.
Similarly, the penetration of our arts and customs has been so deep that we can no longer separate with certainty any remaining evidence of pure aboriginal culture. It is fortunate that when the artists who preserved these records for us were at work Indian culture was much nearer to its source, so that the records serve us well, although they are by no means perfect or complete.
We are happy to say that here is real authentic portraiture; nothing of the studio; nothing imagined. One cannot view this gallery of portraits without being stirred by the strength, the virility, and the savage beauty of these Chiefs and warriors. [page 429]
When they lived, contact with the debasing influences of our race and civilization had not yet wholly destroyed their native culture, nor quite dimmed their inherent primitive feeling for nature. There are definite traces here of both of these outstanding qualities in the natural beauty of their names, even in translation, and in the haughty independence of their gaze upon the observer, confident in the living traditions which were their measure of values—traditions even then passing, and now completely passed into history. [page 430]