George Catlin and other non-native painters offered viewers of their works of art a glimpse of their own perspectives concerning native people. Catlin’s works of art, which are displayed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Campfire Stories, n.d.), for example, were designed for multiple purposes. Catlin stated that he wished to capture the life and culture of Native-Americans before they (as he supposed they would) disappeared altogether as a result of displacement and genocide. It appears that Catlin attempted to portray natives as close to what he presumed they were like before the disruption of Western European invasion. Most of the paintings show idealized images of the landscape and of native people and very few of his paintings offer images that show the negative impact of colonization on these people. One of the few paintings by Catlin that offers a depiction of a Native-American impacted by the colonizer is of Wi-jn-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington (n.d.).
In a less than flattering fashion, Catlin described Wi-jn-jon’s appearance on his return trip from Washington, as dressed in what Catlin supposed were garments of a fine military costume, given to him by the President. Interestingly though, as evidenced in his painting, Theodore Burr Catlin, in Indian Costume, (n.d.) he sees nothing perverse with people of European descent dressed in Native-American costume and engaged in native themed ‘reenactments’, as it was his custom to put on such ‘Wild West’ performances (he called them “tableaux vivants”) in order to capitalize on the events (Theodore Burr Catlin, n.d.).
Catlin’s other and unstated purpose for painting the life and culture of Native-Americans before they were gone, then, was to capitalize on their unique culture as his own means for economic survival in a competitive, capitalistic society. In this way, the representations of Native-Americans were truer than what might first appear on the surface. The representations of Native-Americans by painters such as Catlin are a record of how European-Americans imagined everything (including people) in The New World to be objects for their own exploitation and capitalistic gain, and they made their imaginations become reality.
Campfire Stories with George Catlin. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum: Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 23, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html
Theodore Burr Catlin, in Indian Costume. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum: Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html
Wi-jn-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning. (n.d.). Smithsonian American Art Museum: Campfire Stories with George Catlin. Retrieved May 20, 2014, from http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/catlinclassroom/cl.html
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