Online exhibition prepared for American Indian Heritage Month
Found among the Archives’collections are many artists’ depictions of the American Indian. While the work of artists like George Catlin, W. Langdon Kihn, and Dorothy Newkirk Stewart all look different, they, and the work of other artists represented in this display, are united in one respect: their subject matter came from life. Whether through sketchbooks, notes, or works of art, the following selections are testament to the power of observation.
Creator: Wide World Photos: The New York Times, S.A.
Like George Catlin before him, W. (Wilfred) Langdon Kihn (1898-1957) was interested in studying the American Indian but not from a purely artistic point of view. He wanted to use the canvas to capture the life, customs, and experience of the American Indian. At the age of nineteen he accompanied his teacher Winold Reiss on a trip to Montana to visit the Blackfoot Indian reservation. This trip marked Kihn’s first contact with American Indians, and created within him a life-long passion for documenting their culture. Khin’s portraits, illustrations, and sketches use strong, graphic lines, no doubt a quotation of American Indian designs he studied. While the dress of the figure and the space around them is often abstracted, the faces of Kihn’s sitters are always expressive, perhaps showing sorrow, pride, or stoicism.
Creator: George Catlin
Among the most curious items found in Catlin's papers are small hand- written certificates which declare that his many portraits of American Indians are "painted from life" and the "Indian sat in the costume in which it is painted."
While Catlin certified that his portraits were painted from life, not every critic needed proof. After Catlin’s Indian Gallery was displayed in London, The United States Gazette reported that "the Great and unshared merit of these sketches lies in the circumstance that there is nothing either in the grouping or the detail in anywise imaginary, but that every scene which his collection contains was copied by him from life, while the original was before him.
[Opinions of the English and United States Press on Catlin’s North American Indian Museum; Exhibiting in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London.," p. 13. George Catlin Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution]
Photograph of George Catlin, 1868, from the George Catlin papers, 1821-1890.
Creator: Charles H. (Charles Harry) Humphriss
Born in England but active in New York City, Charles H. Humphriss (b. 1867 d.1964) was a sculptor specializing in Indian and animal subjects. His sketches and sculptures are highly sensitive to the anatomical form and display a high degree of naturalism. Humphriss often infuses pathos or the spirit of the dance into these works which, while static, are never lifeles
Although she specialized in images of women and children, the painter and illustrator Olive Rush (b. 1873 d. 1966) also sketched and painted the American Indians she encountered living in Santa Fe, New Mexico and traveling throughout the Southwest. As a muralist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), she created murals which illustrated scenes of their heritage in Santa Fe.
Creator: Allen Tupper True
Painter and illustrator Allen Tupper True (b. 1881 d. 1955) used the Southwest, as the inspiration for his art. He is well known for his murals in the State Capitols of Wyoming and Missouri, and for sixteen murals for the Colorado National Bank of Denver. True's papers contain project files, sketches by him of Native American artifacts, photographs, and other documents reflecting his desire for historical accuracy and attention to detail. An excerpt of an interview with True from a pamphlet, "Indian Memories," which accompanied the unveiling of his Colorado National Bank murals in 1923, suggests his motivations:
...these murals for the Colorado National Bank treat of the Indian only. They essay to recall the days before his contact with the white race—days when his dignity and cruelty, his joy in living, stoic endurance and primitive integrity, as well as beauty of superstition and religious belief, made the cycle of his life an epic which never has been properly sensed or understood by the Whites.