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Charles Bird King’s Native American Leaders

Charles Bird King's portrait of Cherokee politician John Ridge

Charles Bird King's portrait of Cherokee politician John Ridge

Charles Bird King (1785-1862) Ottoe Half Chief, Husband of Eagle of Delight ca. 1821-1822 Oil on panel

Charles Bird King (1785-1862)
Ottoe Half Chief, Husband of Eagle of Delight
ca. 1821-1822
Oil on panel

In Crystal Bridges’ Colonial and Early Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery you will find two portraits of Ottoe chiefs painted by Charles Bird King ca. 1822-24.

This pair of portraits are part of a series of 143 paintings made by King at the request of Thomas McKenney, head of the first Bureau of Indian Affairs, between 1821 and 1842.  The subjects were Native American leaders who were brought to Washington DC on diplomatic missions.  The Washington trips were meant to serve a sort of “shock and awe” purpose:  to wow the Indians with white power and industry:  illustrating to them the fruitlessness of further resistance to white settlement in their territories.

McKenney had developed a sympathy to the Native American cause, along with a great respect for the culture and dignity of the chiefs who visited.  When federal funding for the portraits was suspended, McKenney published an article in defense of the project in several newspapers, saying: “Apart from the great object of preserving in some form the resemblance of an interesting People, it is the policy of the thing. Indians are like other people in many respects—and are not less sensible than we are, to marks of respect and attention. They see this mark of respect to their people, and respect it. Its effects, as is known to me, are, in this view of the subject, highly valuable.”  (Alexandrea Gazette, May 22, 1828).

Charles Bird King (1785-1862) Wai-Kee-Chai, Sanky Chief, Crouching Eagle ca. 1824 Oil on panel

Charles Bird King (1785-1862)
Wai-Kee-Chai, Sanky Chief, Crouching Eagle
ca. 1824
Oil on panel

McKenney’s entire collection was eventually transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where most were tragically lost in a fire in 1865. The portraits in Crystal Bridges’ collection were duplicates that King made, either for himself or for others. Like the paintings, many of the tribes the portraits represented have since vanished: victims of government removal policies, European diseases, and the systematic dismantling of tribal structure and suppression of Native languages.

Fortunately, lithographer Henry Inman created copies of 120 of the portraits for McKenney’s historic three-volume publication History of the Indian Tribes of North America, With Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs, which was published between 1837 and 1844.  Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection holds one of the original folio publications.

See the Works

Charles Bird King's portrait of Cherokee politician John Ridge, on view in Crystal Bridges' gallery.

Charles Bird King’s portrait of Cherokee politician John Ridge, on view in Crystal Bridges’ gallery.

Visitors to the Museum can view a volume of McKenney’s original folio of the History of the Indian Tribes in a focus grouping currently on view in the Museum’s Colonial and Early Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery. The grouping features Inman’s lithograph of John Ross, Principle Chief of the Cherokee in the early nineteenth century and outspoken opponent of Indian Removal.  Alongside the print is Charles Bird King’s portrait of John Ridge, currently on loan from collector William S. Reese. Ridge was a Cherokee politician and opponent of Ross who came to believe over time that removal was the only way to save the Cherokee heritage and sovereignty.

These two portraits together tell the dramatic story of political conflict within the tribe leading up to the signing of the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 which ceded all the Cherokee’s ancestral lands east of the Mississippi to the United States—an act which led to the forced removal of the Cherokee and the death of some four thousand people on the Trail of Tears.

Meet the Collector This Saturday, May 17, at 1 pm, manuscript and rare-book specialist William S. Reese will talk about his passion for collecting historic prints and paintings of Native Americans, including Charles Bird King’s portrait of John Ridge, currently on loan to Crystal Bridges. The talk is free.  No registration is required.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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