Four Kiowa Indians by George Catlin

Name: Four Kiowa Indians | Artist: George Catlin Media: Oil on card mounted on paperboard | Year(s): 1861 - 1869
George Catlin | Four Kiowa Indians | 1861 - 1869 | Oil on card mounted on paperboard | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Paul Mellon Collection

About the Work

In his 1871 catalog of the Cartoon Collection, Catlin described the Kiowas as a, "small tribe, living on the source of the Red River, Western Texas." This was an oddly bland description. Six years before Catlin visited the Southern Plains, the Kiowas were named, along with the Pawnees, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Comanches, as one of the tribes harassing traders on the Santa Fe Trail. In a catalog of his Indian Gallery published in 1840 Catlin characterized them as "a wild and predatory tribe of 5 or 6,000, living on the west of the Pawnee Picts, and Camanchees, and also in alliance with those warlike and powerful tribes." Catlin was impressed by the Pawnee-Pict village that he saw, but found the Pawnee-Picts as a people inferior to the Kiowas, "a much more manlike and elegant race of men-taller, lighter skin-more handsomely dressed and more gentlemanly in their deportment."

This group portrait draws on earlier individual portraits. Though Catlin painted many full-length portraits in the 1830s, he favored bust portraits. Since all of the figures in his Indian Cartoons were full-length, he often cobbled them together, borrowing heads and shoulders from his original paintings and adding the rest. Identifications sometimes were confused in the process. The two men in this painting of four Kiowas were both identified by name in the accompanying catalog as Teh-tóot-sa and Bon-són-je or the New Fire, but appear to be composites drawn from three Kiowa portraits painted in 1834.

The boy and young woman, nameless in Catlin's Cartoon catalog, are identified in their original joint portrait as Thunderer and his sister White Weasel. Catlin painted them at Fort Gibson (in present-day Oklahoma) before a dragoon expedition departed for a meeting with the Comanches. Thunderer and White Weasel, both Kiowas, had been purchased from the Osages who held them as captives, and were to be returned to their people by the dragoons as a goodwill gesture. Sadly, the boy died before the troops commenced their march, killed, Catlin said, "by a ram the day before we started." The Kiowas, who "had been apprised of our approach, with a prisoner of their tribe, made their appearance [in the Comanche camp] in a formidable body, beautifully dressed and equipped." In that same camp Catlin took the opportunity to make the Kiowa portraits that later figured in his Indian Cartoons.