Mandan War Chief with His Favorite Wife by George Catlin
About the Work
Catlin praised the Western tribes for their hospitality to strangers like himself. In 1832, on his first extended excursion up the Missouri into Indian Country, he lingered among the Mandans, "a small tribe of 2000 souls, living in two permanent villages on the Missouri, 1800 miles above its junction with the Mississippi." After they were devastated by smallpox five years after his visit, they became his model for the vanishing race. "This friendly and interesting tribe all perished by the smallpox and suicide," he wrote in 1840. The pitiful remnants that survived the epidemic were killed off by their enemies, "rendering the tribe entirely extinct, and their language lost, in the short space of a few months!" Catlin exaggerated the numbers--some Mandans had survived--but the lesson he drew was unqualified: the same fate awaited all the Western tribes whose likenesses and cultures he had preserved in paint, "snatching from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity."
Catlin's paintings featuring Máh-to-tóh-pa, or Four Bears, a Mandan sub-chief popular throughout the nation, should be seen in this light. Posed in his native finery, he appears robust and durable. But Catlin was painting a ghost in the making. The chief's splendid costume consisted of a decorated shirt or tunic, leggings, moccasins, necklace, and, Catlin wrote, a "head-dress of war eagles' quills and ermine, extending quite to the ground, surmounted by the horns of the buffalo and skin of the magpie." His striking pose, befitting a Roman senator, was set off with his staff of office, a lance festooned with feathers. In this family portrait, the boy on the left displays Four Bears' shield and bow and quiver, while his favorite wife, M'y-neck-e-súnk-te-ca or the Mink, proudly shows off his buffalo robe decorated with scenes of his exploits in battle. Catlin exhibited Four Bears' full outfit in his Indian Gallery claiming it was the very one worn in his portrait, though evidence indicates it was partially a replica manufactured in England for display purposes.
Either way, Four Bears was a key to understanding Catlin's motives in creating his Indian Gallery. In a related picture Catlin showed himself painting Four Bears in front of an awestruck crowd of Mandans. It is a study in contentment-the artist realizing his dream. He wanted the world to know that the Indian Gallery was his creation; his was the eye behind the art, and he played a role as participant-observer in every painting, whether he appeared in it or not. Catlin's West was as much his West as Frederic Remington's and Charles M. Russell's would be theirs. All occasionally included themselves in their paintings as eyewitnesses to what they depicted. Catlin's need to be acknowledged is evident in the painting Catlin Feasted by the Mandan Chief showing him as Four Bears' guest "dining on a roast rib of buffalo and pemican. The chief, by the polite custom of the country, never eats with his invited guest, but sits by him, waiting upon him, and cleaning and charging the pipe for a sociable smoke after the feast is over." Once again, we see the artist realizing his dream.