HISTORY in CONTEXT | An Artist's Perspective: Portraits of Native Americans

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Historical Background for Teachers

Colonization transformed the lives of America’s Indigenous peoples and the landscape that they had developed. Encounters between Native people and colonists included trade, warfare, and treaty-making. Indigenous nations struggled to remain autonomous while adapting to the introduction of European laws and legal systems. Indigenous peoples lived in a world regulated by their own norms, rights, obligations, rules, customs, and moral arguments, but most colonial entities to recognize their principles as laws.

The value systems of Native and European peoples often conflicted with one another, and none more so than when it came to the natural environment. New England colonial governments recognized aboriginal title, the concept that those who occupied the land had some rights, though fewer rights than those with written patents or deeds. Colonists did not consider North America “terra nullius” (empty land). A land empty of people had no value for colonizers, who sought to appropriate the labor of the indigenous population as well as its knowledge of the land.

There was a widely held belief throughout the United States that “Indians” were "vanishing." Euro-American travel narratives and captivity narratives described Indigenous people as “savages,” often using terms like “uncivilized” and “heathen” that were sure to evoke negative feelings in their white readers. Even those writers who embraced the idea of the “noble savage” depicted Indigenous people as part of the natural landscape. Some Euro-Americans applauded the march of progress and democracy across the United States, while others lamented the destruction of the wilderness and the increasing violence and warfare against Native people. Both sides, however, embraced the idea that Indians were disappearing as part of a natural process of less civilized people giving way to an advanced civilization.[1]

Connecting to the Art at the NBMAA

There are four works representing Native Americans in the early years of the republic by white artists. It is not until the 21st century that works by Native American artists became part of the collection.

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, The Clove, Catskills, ca. 1826, Oil on canvas, 25 1/4 × 35 1/8 in. (64.1 × 89.2 cm), Charles F. Smith Fund, 1945.22

In “The Clove, Catskills,” painted in 1826 by Thomas Cole, an Indigenous man points to the forest. The landscape contrasts dark and light, and in that contrast, the Native man in the center of the painting, blends into the wilderness his warning difficult to discern. Cole used the figure of this Native American in the landscapes he painted throughout his career. The other artists in the Hudson School and he were concerned about the Industrial Revolution’s railroads and factories displacing the wilderness they found so magnificent, but the “vanishing Indian” was a trope—a figure of speech, a device—to call attention to the problem of losing pristine land, not a whole people.[2]

George Catlin

George Catlin had a much closer connection to Native Americans than Thomas Cole. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, he moved from Pennsylvania to Connecticut to obtain his law degree from Litchfield Law School. He only practiced law for 2 years before turning to art. In 1821, he traveled to Philadelphia which was, at the time, the preeminent American location for artistic practice. While there he befriended many artists and started to make his own art. Catlin worked for a time as a miniaturist before turning to portraits and landscapes of the American West. Though a prolific painter, he never was academically trained and maintained a sketchy style to his works.

Catlin, from a young age, was interested in the American West and the Indigenous tribes who lived there. It was his belief that Indigenous peoples were a “race of people who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth” and he wanted to preserve their cultural practices and history through his art and writings. Catlin said he was “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.” Catlin took his first trip West in 1830. Over the course of 5 trips, Catlin made over 500 paintings with 474 surviving. These works were to go into an “Indian Gallery” of Catlin’s making. He combined his paintings, writings, and collected artifacts from the Indigenous tribes he encountered to make his gallery, which he traveled and exhibited in the United States and Europe. The “Indian Gallery” was eventually added to the Smithsonian collection in 1879, 7 years after Catlin’s death. Some of Catlin’s work, such as the ones in the New Britain Museum of American Art, were purchased by private owners.

For many, George Catlin is remembered for capturing everyday reality of the Mandan people. His portraits recorded the details of their customs, artifacts, activities, and appearance.

Exploring George Catlin’s “Indian Gallery”

When George Catlin painted portraits of two Indigenous men in the early nineteenth century, part of his whole oeuvre of painted records of Indigenous people at work and play, his viewers might have seen these men through the lens of their understanding of “vanishing Indians,” a regrettable misnomer for which Native Americans continue to correct today.

The portraits at the NBMAA are only two of five-hundred original portraits painted from Catlin's embedded life with at least 48 different Native American tribes throughout the Midwest over the course of six years.

George Catlin, Mew-Hew-She-Kaw, The White Cloud, Chief of the Ioways, 1816-1872, Oil on canvas, 28 × 22 3/4 in. (71.1 × 57.8 cm), Private Collection, 1995.05T
George Catlin, Chesh-Oo-Honga-All, 1816-1872, Oil on canvas, 28 x 23 in. (71.1 x 58.4 cm), Private Collection, 1995.06T

Both Mew-Hew-She-Kaw, The White Cloud, Chief of the Ioways), and Chesh-Oo-Honga-All appear in full ornamental regalia, including bodily adornments of jewelry, paint, beads, and feathers. Mew-Hew-She-Kaw, painted in 1844-45, also wore what may have been an “Indian peace” medal he was given during John Tyler’s presidency.[3]

Each man, Mew-Hew-She-Kaw and Chesh-Oo-Honga-All, is fully present in their magnificent portraits. Their pride and status are on full display. Catlin was determined to document the Indigenous people. He admired them and lamented that their society was becoming “degraded” by “civilized teaching.”[4] Catlin was painting the Indigenous people of North America just as John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in 1845 and an ideology of westward expansion took shape. Catlin wanted to capture their “natural and noble” dignity before it was gone. In fact, the Mandan tribe disappeared as a result of a smallpox outbreak for which the Mandan has no immunity.

George Catlin, Buffalo Hunt in Snow Shoes, 1816-1872, Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 × 28 in. (59.1 × 71.1 cm), Private Collection, 1995.07T

America’s history will continue to be contested and new insights will emerge as subsequent generations ask new questions, read the primary source documents in light of changing circumstances, and reinterpret paintings like those in the New Britain Museum of American Art. The interpretation of history is never static.

These three works by George Catlin, are on long term loan to the NBMAA from a private collection. The works are part of more than 400 surviving works by Catlin made during his time painting the American West. Catlin made 5 trips to the West between 1830-36 in pursuit of tribes “uncorrupted” by “American civilization.” His goal was to put his artworks and accumulated artifacts purchased from Indigenous tribes into his “Indian Gallery.”

Audio Resources

Picture 1

Josh Carter, Executive Director of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, provides commentary from the viewpoint of a Northeast Woodlands tribal member. We are grateful for his generosity in working with the NBMAA to extend our understanding of culture.

  1. An introduction to the importance of language in indigenous culture and the connection between language and relationships. (0:42)

  2. A welcome in the Algonquin language and more detailed explanation of language and the role of language. (6:38)

  3. An explanation of the importance of land in the indigenous culture. (2:06)

  4. A view on how to identify Indian? Native American? Indigenous? (1:44)

  5. Thoughts on Catlin’s work and collecting native art in museums (2:45)

  6. An explanation of leadership structure in the Northeast Woodland Communities (6:55) 

Historical Background Resources

George Catlin

Eastern Woodland Indians

  • Mashantucket Pequot Museum (18:55). A virtual tour of highlight of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and the story of the Pequot people can be found at this You Tube link.

Lesson Plan

Click here to download a lesson planning guide for An Artist's Perspective: Portraits of Native Americans.


[1] Brian Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982), 6-7.

[2] Nancy Palm, Thomas Cole's Indian Subjects, Racial Politics, and the National Landscape (Diss. Indiana University, 2011), 14.

[3] Jane M. Roos, “Courbet, Catlin, and the Exploitation of Native Americans,” Transatlantica 2 (2017), https://doi.org/10.4000/transa....