London’s National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition on the work of American painter George Catlin (1796-1862), a salf taught artist who spent much of his life depicting native Americans as their tribes and ways of life were vanishing in the 19th century. His interest in these people was apparently inspired by his mother having been captured by them as a young girl. One of the most poignant of his pieces is a split portrait of one of them who went to Washington in tribal dress and returned dressed as a European. Says it all really.
He also brought his work to London, Brussels and Paris, drawing attention to the plight of the native Americans in Europe. He also wrote several books on his travels in North and South America.
His paintings show cultural events that I doubt are shown elsewhere, such as a pipestone quarry in what is now Minnesota, where stone for pipes was mined, believed by the local Sioux tribe as being the source of their flesh. He also showed the Choktaw playing ball, an early type of lacrosse with hickory sticks and a hide covered ball.
In London, the Indian Galery was displayed in 1840 in the Egyptian Hall Picadilly, where lectures and entertainments such as mock battles by native americans but also actors were held. He found support in the eminent British physician and ethnographer James Cowles Prichard.
I am intrigued by his book ‘Shut Your Mouth’ which suggests that the native habit of keeping their mouths shut leads to better teeth, physical and mental health. OUr modern obsession with constantly talking makes me wonder if this might be a sensible notion. An early version of engaging the brain before speaking.
But for all his achievements as an artist and ethnographer, he died bankrupt but fortunately his paintings found their way into the Smithsonian collection.