Property from a Private Collection, Santa Barbara, California
George Catlin (American, 1794-1872)
Blackfoot Indian Group oil on paper 16 1/4 x 22 3/4in, oval Painted circa 1832
PROVENANCE: The artist Estate of the above Mr. and Mrs. Harry Edwards With William Hallett Phillips, acquired from the above Archibald Rogers, Hyde Park, New York, acquired from the above With Edward Eberstadt & Sons, New York With Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York Thomas Cousens, Atlanta, Georgia Acquired by the present owner from the above
EXHIBITED: New York, Kennedy Galleries, Inc., The Western Legend Paintings, Sculptures, Drawings of the North American West, April 16-June 1, 1956, no. 22b. Wichita, Kansas, Wichita Art Museum, and elsewhere, Artists of the Western Frontier, May 6-26, 1961, no. 31.
Regarded as the leading painter of Indian life in 19th century America, George Catlin was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in 1796. The fifth child of Putnam and Polly Catlin, George spent most of his boyhood exploring the woods of Pennsylvania and eventually, upstate New York, where his family moved when he was four years old. His fascination with the American West began with his mother's stories of her capture and subsequent safe release by Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his own benevolent encounter, at nine years old, with an Oneida Indian known as 'The Great Warrior' along the Susquehanna River. Happiest when he was outdoors, the young Catlin found freedom not in the schoolhouse, but at his sketchbook, an impractical hobby by his parents' standards.
At the age of twenty-three, Catlin began to study law, but his education was short lived; in 1853 he moved to Philadelphia and opened up a studio as a Miniature painter. Unimpressed with the commissions he received for both small and large-scale works, Catlin was eager for exciting subject matter. Inspiration was found in the band of Plains Indians who passed through Philadelphia en route to Washington, D.C. Their colorful regalia of buffalo robes and eagle feathers would soon be found in the staggering series of Indian portraits Catlin would become famous for.
As more white settlers began to pioneer westward from the Mississippi, the Indian way of life threatened to vanish. In 1830 with the good faith of his wife, Clara, Catlin traveled alone to St. Louis, where he would meet the famed explorer William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and make his first trip to the Indian Territory. At Governor Clark's side, Catlin was exposed to treaty signings, speeches and stories from Indians who were rapidly being forced to give up their land. Catlin was determined to render the Indians as they roamed and ruled the plains, hunting and riding and dancing before white settlers changed their landscape forever. While aboard the maiden voyage of the steamboat Yellowstone, Catlin was able to visit Fort Union, the most important trading post on the Upper Missouri River and encountered two tribes he came to particularly admire, the Crow and the Blackfoot. Catlin described them as "cleanly in their persons, elegant in their dress and manners, and enjoying life to the greatest perfection" (S. Reich, Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art & Adventures of George Catlin, 2008, p. 31).
In the present work, Blackfoot Indian Group, Catlin's simple yet exacting hand depicts three Indians he is believed to have painted at Fort Union. The Blackfoot Confederacy, a group made up of three distinct tribes found in northern Montana and Alberta, is described extensively by Catlin in the first volume of his impressive publication Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians. 'The Blackfeet are, perhaps, -ne of the most (if not entirely the most) numerous and warlike tribes on the Continent. They occupy the whole of the country about the sources of the Missouri, from this place to the Rocky Mountains ; and their numbers, from the best computations, are something like forty or fifty thousand they are (like nil other tribes whose numbers are sufficiently large to give them boldness) warlike and ferocious, j. e. they are predatory, are roaming fearlessly about the country, even into and through evry part of the Rocky Mountains, and carrying war amongst their enemies, who are, of course, every tribe who inhabit the country about them" (G. Catlin, Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians, 1842, p. 42).
Catlin had recorded earlier that 'there is no tribe, perhaps, on the Continent, who dress more comfortably, and more gaudily, than the Blackfeet, unless it be the tribe of Crows. There is no great difference, however, in the costliness or elegance of their costumes; nor in the materials of which they are formed; though there is a distinctive mode in each tribe, of stitching or ornamenting with the porcupine quills, which constitute one of the principal ornaments to all their tine dresses ; and which can be easily recognized, by any one a little familiar with their modes, as belonging to such or such a tribe' (Catlin, p. 30).
Eventually Catlin became known as 'The Medicine Painter' and the first American artist to extensively depict more than fifty Indian tribes in their native territories over the course of eight years. Capturing his subjects with life-like detail, Catlin rendered his portraits with a humanity unseen in the work of his counterparts who were more accustomed to envisioning the 'savage.' This disposition was thanks in part to his immense respect for the cultures he encountered, particularly the tradition of medicine, or mystery, a formative aspect of Indian life. The first two figures depicted in Blackfoot Indian Group are featured as plate illustrations in Catlin's Letters and notes and referenced as 'In-ne-o-cose, the iron-horn (plate 16) at full length in a splendid dress with his "medicine-bag" in his hand; and Ah-kay-ee-pix-en, the woman who strikes many (plate 17), in a beautiful dress of the mountain-goats' skin, and her robe of the young buffalo's hide' (Catlin, p. 34). Catlin, however, contradicts his own translations were earlier by listing his subjects as Mix-ke-mote-skin-na (the iron horn) and In-ne-o-cose (the buffalo's child) all in 'richly colored dress' (Catlin, p. 30), with medicine bags of otter skin festooned with ermine.
Sketches and paintings in situ such as this, along with portraits at half-length and artifacts the artist collected during his travels would make up a monumental body of work known as Catlin's Indian Gallery. Though unsuccessful in persuading the U.S government to purchase the collection in full, Catlin was able to extensively exhibit his gallery starting in London in 1839, and onwards to Brussels and Paris all to great acclaim. Both celebrated and criticized for his depictions of life in the American West, Catlin was nonetheless a passionate and keen observer. Before long, Catlin and his contemporaries would see the United States grow at an alarming rate at the expense of these sacred lands and slowly dying cultures. Blackfoot Indian Group is a striking example of Catlin's dedication to the Indian subject as a reverent outsider before it was to disappear from public view.
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