As a boy growing up just after the American revolution, George Catlin was entranced by his mother’s stories about how she had been captured by American Indians. As a young artist he travelled across the Wild West in order to depict, and thus “rescue from oblivion”, the faces and customs of tribes threatened by American settlers. Later, he took these paintings – and a troupe of American Indians who performed war dances for gawping audiences – across Europe before bankruptcy forced him to sell his prized ‘Indian Gallery’.
To modern eyes this Indian Gallery, which contains over 500 paintings comprising mainly portraits, but also landscape and genre paintings showing customs such as scalp dances, sits in an uncomfortable space of voyeuristic ethnography. Yet Catlin’s good intentions, and his strong concern for the plight of the American Indians, are clear.
The paintings themselves are of variable quality – some portraits are captivating, others flat and dull. In one room the curators have amassed a large group of portraits, displaying them closely packed together as they would have been seen when the Indian Gallery first came to London in 1843. This is supposed to impress us, one assumes, but for me it served only to make the paintings look like a series of cigarette cards, whose value is not in the art work, but in the act of collection.
Perhaps, though, this is the point. Catlin no doubt had artistic ambitions for his Indian Gallery but he also had a social aim – to literally put a face to the tribes which were vanishing as America pushed its frontier ever westwards – and it is this context which gives the portraits their power.