Mapping the West Indian Summer, 1835-1985
Indian Summer, 1835-1985
INhis Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians, published in London in 1844, artist, author, and explorer George Catlin (1796-1872) wrote of penetrating the “vast and pathless wilds” of North America and his 1832 expedition to document “an interesting race of people, who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth. …” No doubt Catlin and his contemporaries believed this sentiment at the time, writing at the advent of the steam engine, whose great plumes of smoke and churning engines heralded the inexorable expansion west. Though ethnographic in their intent, 19th-century expeditions up the Missouri, which roughly followed the route mapped out decades before by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were tinged by a Romantic idealism that would come to dominate artistic representations of Native Americans and the American West. But artists painted what they saw on those expeditions, only later employing greater artistic license in their visual depictions of indigenous tribes. Native peoples went from being viewed as curiosities — their portraits rendered almost as though they were specimens on a par with John James Audubon’s depictions of the flora and fauna of North America — to being seen as noble savages, heroic but also anachronistic. There was no place for Native Americans in the growing nation’s vision of Manifest Destiny.
The transition from scientific inquiry to Romantic idealism is the general theme of Indian Summer,
1835-1985, an exhibit of historic artwork, maps, and books at William R. Talbot Fine Art, opening Friday, Aug. 12. The exhibit is composed primarily of 19th-century prints but also includes 20th-century painting, photography, and works on paper that show
shifting attitudes in representations of the American Indian over time. “It begins with a 19th-century American ethnographic approach, particularly the Karl Bodmer prints,” Talbot told Pasatiempo, referring to Swiss artist Johann Carl Bodmer (1809-1893), who accompanied German anthropologist Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (1782-1867) on his historic expedition to North America’s Great Plains in 1832. Among the prints on display is a map that clearly delineates the route of their expedition, more detailed and accurate than the one of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which Talbot also has in his collection. “The map illustrates exactly the BodmerMaximilian expedition,” said Talbot. “The prints were published between 1839 and 1842. The whole trip was two years: from Europe, landing in Boston, then traveling by the river highways. Lewis and Clark went all the way to the West Coast, of course. That was in 1804 through 1806. Their map was published in Philadelphia in 1814. Clearly, Maximilian had a copy of the Lewis and Clark map. There are similarities.” Talbot’s Lewis and Clark map is a restrike printed from the original copper plate exactly the way it would have been done in 1814. “The Bodmer and Maximilian expedition stopped in the Mandan country,” he said. “They didn’t go all the way to the West Coast.”
The Bodmer-Maximilian map details the territories of the Chippewa, the Omaha, Assiniboines, and Pawnee, among the territories of other indigenous tribes. Their venture ended in the area known today as the Dakotas. “There’s not another map of the 19th century that illustrates Western Indian lands and tribes like this map does,” said Talbot. “It’s rather unique that way. So this is a very important map which accompanies all of the plates, Indian portraits, and so forth that were taken from watercolors done by Bodmer. Instead of a camera, he was painting with watercolors. The copper plates were engraved from the paintings and then printed. Some were hand-colored.”
Though George Catlin’s earlier record of his encounters with American Indians was, perhaps, not without sympathy for their plight, it was Colonel Thomas Loraine McKenney (1785-1859), superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1824 to 1830, who argued that indigenous peoples were the equal of the white man in body and soul. But McKenney, too, saw the encroaching presence of European Americans on Indian lands as indicative of the decline and extinction of their ways of life. Talbot has a rare fourth edition three-volume octavo set of McKenney and James Hall’s (1793-1868) History of the Indian Tribes
of North America that was published in Philadelphia in 1858. The monumental work, which includes 120 lithographic and chromolithographic plates, first appeared in a large folio edition issued between 1836 and 1844. Many of the Native portraits were from commissioned paintings by painter Charles Bird King (1785-1862), who captured the likenesses of tribal leaders who had come as delegates to Washington, D.C., or whom McKenney encountered on the frontier while negotiating treaties. Not content with brief descriptions, he humanized the project by getting Hall to write lengthy and, according to Talbot, sometimes unflinching biographies of the leaders and tribesmen.
Not much later, in the mid-19th century, ethnographic and descriptive cataloguing of Native peoples gave way to narrative scenes that became wildly popular with the American and European public. An idyllic image of an Indian encampment at the base of the Rocky Mountains epitomizes this aesthetic shift. The print is a black-and-white engraving by James Smillie (1833-1909) after German-born artist Albert Bierstadt’s (1830-1902) well-known Romantic painting The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak from 1863. “It’s a much more artistic interpretation by Bierstadt, and he was known as one of the most famous artists depicting the American West in the 19th century,” Talbot said. “But it’s on a European slant, him being from Germany and having studied in Europe.” The engraving was based on Bierstadt’s original. “The painting was done on a magnificent, large scale. It went on tour in Europe and America,” Talbot said. “Americans and Europeans were very curious about Native Americans. When people began to travel to the West, they realized that, no, it doesn’t really look like Bierstadt’s interpretation. It’s been said that he created the Swiss Alps of America, because the Rockies don’t look like that.”
Bierstadt’s narrative works became synonymous with the bucolic, mythic depictions of America’s indigenous cultures. A photogravure in Indian
Summer, based on an original oil painting that is now in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, depicts a hunter on the plains driving a spear into a charging buffalo. It’s a dramatic work that is perhaps as iconic as sculptor James Earle Fraser’s End of the
Trail. “It had an early title called The Buffalo Hunt,” Talbot said. The original painting is the pinnacle of the romanticized vision of the West; the name change to Last of the Buffalo draws deliberate comparison, it seems, between what 19th-century society saw as the extinction of a race of man to the extinction of a beast — the phrasing “last of the buffalo” was code for the last of the American Indian. But the images from this period in America’s history — though its effects still linger and though much of tribal knowledge and culture, not to mention life, was lost — was a reflection of the attitudes of 19th-century and early-20th-century society that have themselves proved anachronistic. Today, after all, even the buffalo endure.
After Peter Rindisbacher: Hunting the Buffaloe, 1837, lithograph with original hand color from History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Thomas McKenney and James Hall; bottom left, McKenney & Hall, History of the Indian Tribes of North America