Tuesday, June 18, 2013

George Catlin's American Indian Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

No lie - you've got until June 23rd
Last time, I was engaging in a little cultural time-travel with my Walter Scott field-trip - attempting to resurrect, on an individual level at least, an association between a place and a book that had faded away long ago. Yesterday, now I sit and think about it, I was engaged in a similar process of time-slippage when I finally made it, just in time, to the National Portrait Gallery's pretty wonderful George Catlin exhibition.

It's not often, as a nineteenth-century Americanist based in the UK, that you get to have such an immediate and local experience of such a significant piece of antiquarian Americana. But here, too, was an added thrill  - the knowledge that by visiting Catlin's gallery you were also recreating the experience of Londoners in the 1840s who themselves made the trip to Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly to satisfy their own curiosity about life in the New World.
Egyptian Hall in 1842 (first building on the right) advertising Catlin's gallery (if you squint, promise) (via)
I've written about Catlin's time in London before, in River of Dreams - particularly his role as a precursor to the experiences of John Banvard during his own residency at the Egyptian Hall a few years later with his moving panorama of the Mississippi River, another hyper-real distillation of life on the frontier America for eager Transatlantic audiences. Wandering through the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with my daughter, adding my own level of time-shifting hyper-reality to the experience offered by Catlin's paintings and artefacts, I was struck anew by the vividness and power of these images. Seeing them was certainly different than reading and writing about them.  

I also couldn't help but try and imagine seeing these portraits with 1840 eyes, as fruitless as that attempt might be. What associations would Victorian families have brought to Catlin's gallery? Of course, countless literary representations of Native Americans, both home grown and imported, had circulated in Britain for centuries (Mary Rowlandson, for example, had been an influential bestseller). But in 1840, two contradictory sources must have loomed large in the popular imagination. James Fenimore Cooper's works would still surely have dominated (and perhaps Thomas Cole's visual interpretations of them would have had an influence, too). But a popular counterpoint had recently emerged with the publication of William Harrison Ainsworth's edition of Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods, in 1837 (mentioned previously in this post). The shift from Cooper's noble, doomed savages to Bird's Indian hating was profoundly felt by contemporary readers. As Ainsworth put it in his introduction:
The sympathy of European nations is enlisted on the side of the Red Man, who is remorselessly hunted from his lands and possessions by his Anglo-American invaders. But, with a view to turn the current of this feeling, Dr. Bird exhibits to us the Aborigines of North America, not as men possessing the heroic virtues ascribed to them by Heckewelder and others, but as wretches stained by every vice, and having no one redeeming quality.
The portraits in Catlin's gallery (and its attendant theatrics, including living, breathing Natives both faux and authentic) would have entered into the debates established by these different brands of imaginary Indians. 

A quick glance at contemporary reactions to Catlin's gallery suggests that, in the main, noble savage interpretations seem to have predominated. The London Saturday Journal framed two long articles about Catlin and his gallery, including engravings of two of his portraits, with a contemplation of what it described as the "disappearance of a race of people before the scythe of civilization" and bemoaned "the wrongs of these poor miscalled savages." The Quarterly Review, in a long article on "The Red Man" which included a review of Catlin's gallery, also lamented the "annihilation of the real proprietors of the New World [...] an act of barbarism unexampled in history."

And then there was a surprise: I'd seen a few allusions to Charles Dickens' reactions to Catlin and his work and wanted to find the source. I couldn't find a contemporary review (did I miss it?), but rather a piece from Household Words in 1853 entitled "The Noble Savage", in which Dickens undertakes some pretty significant Indian hating of his own. Here's a long-ish section from near the beginning:
To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance, and an enormous superstition. His calling rum fire-water, and me a pale face, wholly fail to reconcile me to him. I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and 1 call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilised on the face of the earth. I think a mere gent (which I take to be the lowest form of civilisation) better than a howling, whistling, clucking, stamping, jumping, tearing savage. [...] There was Mr. Catlin, some few years ago, with his Ojibbeway Indians. Mr. Catlin was an energetic earnest man, who had lived among more tribes of Indians than I need reckon up here, and who had written a picturesque and glowing book about them. With his party of Indians squatting and spitting on the table before him, or dancing their miserable jigs after their own dreary manner, he called, in all good faith, upon his civilised audience to take notice of their symmetry and grace, their perfect limbs, and the exquisite expression of their pantomime; and his civilised audience, in all good faith, complied and admired.
And so it goes (prefiguring closely, as it happens, Mark Twain's rather discomfiting statements on American Indians throughout his early work). This was surprising for a number of reasons, not least because throughout his American Notes (1842), Dickens didn't evince anything like this kind of venom for the Native peoples he encountered. And more than that, he detailed one such encounter which serves to break down these limiting binaries, and even now helps us to understand the complex human beings behind Catlin's iconic images. 

On a steamboat on the Ohio, Dickens made the acquaintance "of one Pitchlynn, a chief of the Choctaw tribe of Indians, who sent in his card to me, and with whom I had the pleasure of a long conversation." One topic of conversation was "Mr. Catlin’s gallery, which he praised highly: observing that his own portrait was among the collection." Here it is:

And then they got to talking about literature:
He spoke English perfectly well, though he had not begun to learn the language, he told me, until he was a young man grown. He had read many books; and Scott’s poetry appeared to have left a strong impression on his mind: especially the opening of The Lady of the Lake, and the great battle scene in Marmion, in which, no doubt from the congeniality of the subjects to his own pursuits and tastes, he had great interest and delight. He appeared to understand correctly all he had read; and whatever fiction had enlisted his sympathy in its belief, had done so keenly and earnestly [...] When we shook hands at parting, I told him he must come to England, as he longed to see the land so much: that I should hope to see him there, one day: and that I could promise him he would be well received and kindly treated.  He was evidently pleased by this assurance, though he rejoined with a good-humoured smile and an arch shake of his head, that the English used to be very fond of the Red Men when they wanted their help, but had not cared much for them, since.
So many bones to pick through in that... The exhibition closes on the 23rd June - don't risk waiting another 150 years or so.

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