Encampment of Pawnee Indians at Sunset by George Catlin
About the Work
The Pawnees, Catlin wrote in 1840, were "a wild and very warlike tribe of 12,000, occupying the country watered by the river Platte, from the Missouri to the Rocky Mountains. This once very powerful tribe lost one half of their numbers by the smallpox in 1823." Catlin indicated that the incident shown here occurred in 1832 at the mouth of the Platte. He stated that it was "a fact in history." With the Cheyenne and Pawnees often at odds, clashes like this were common. Three horses race past the viewer. A Pawnee, identifiable by his distinctive shaved head or roach cut, holds up the scalp of his Cheyenne adversary, slumped in death on his horse's back. A second Cheyenne, in hot pursuit, lets loose an arrow that will kill the Pawnee, whose scalp in turn will soon be a trophy to display. By depicting a running fight, Catlin anticipated a popular subject in later Western art, including Charles M. Russell's oil painting When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet (1908).
Perhaps the devastating toll smallpox had taken on their population persuaded Catlin that the Pawnees, like the Mandans, could serve as a powerful example of the fate awaiting all the Western tribes. His painting Encampment of Pawnee Indians at Sunset has a hushed, twilight quality that stands in stark contrast to the violent action in The Scalper Scalped. A pretty picture, it permits the viewer to share the emotions Catlin experienced looking back from Europe on a lost world he could only revisit in his mind.