American Indian Portraits

By: H. H. F. J.

Originally Published in 1938

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THE current exhibition of Portraits of American Indians from Poca hontas to Sitting Bull is, in a manner, a departure from the usual official exhibitions held by the Museum. It is, nevertheless pertinent to the scope of the Museum’s work, for it has a large measure of ethnological significance in addition to its obvious historical (and perhaps artistic) interest. The present show does not pretend to be an art exhibition, though a special endeavour was made, in selecting the works included, to eliminate canvases which were of no real artistic merit and wherefore it is perhaps regrettable that so many works of Catlin were dismissed; there are plenty of Catlin’s paintings available but, by and large, they are not acceptable either as portraits or as commendable works of art. To sustain this, the reader is urged to compare Catlin’s portrait of Black Hawk-a very poor job of portraiture even though it is badly in need of restoration-with Sully’s splendid canvas of this same individual. Having organized the present show with especial care, we are inclined to state that Catlin was neither a particularly accurate recorder nor a portrait painter of any great merit.

Plate VII — Portrait of Pocahontas by an unknown artist. Lent to the Museum through the couresty of the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust.
Image Number: 13069

Special interest inevitably centers about the painting of Pocahontas in the present exhibition, the co-called Booton Hall painting lent by the A. W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust. Her portrait would seem to be the earliest known painting of any American Indian extant. It is certainly the earliest known portrait, in the sense of a painting from life for it was evidently painted during her three-year stay in England. The identity of the artist has not been established, though an effort will be made to do so. It has been suggested that it was done by a visiting Italian artist.

The fine full-length portrait by Benjamin West of Joseph Brant and also lent by the Mellon Trust is perhaps of greater interest artistically than scientifically for Joseph Brant is given a far from prominent position in the dark-hued background. But it is supplemented by the portrait of the same subject by James Wilson Peale from Independence Hall, also an admirable painting, obviously a study from life.

John White’s drawings are, of course, the earliest studies of Indian types, the unique colored reproductions of which are lent by the United States National Museum.

Also from the United States National Museum is the portrait of Sitting Bull, believed to be the only authentic one known.

By far the largest loan is that from the Peabody Museum, Cambridge, twenty-five in all. These are copies by Henry Inman of C. B. King’s originals, since destroyed by fire. However a fine collection of original portraits by King from the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island, are included.

The Museum’s own collection, including several King’s, Catlin’s Black Hawk and many others, completes an exhibition probably the most comprehensive of its kind ever assembled.

H. H.F. J.

Cite This Article

J., H. H. F.. "American Indian Portraits." Museum Bulletin VII, no. 2 (March, 1938): 18-20. Accessed July 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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