In nineteenth century, the predominant view that the First Peoples of North America were doomed for extinction was a favourite theme employed by romantic artists such as Paul Kane, George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, and Edward Curtis. These artists had little regard for the civilized Aboriginals, such as the Cherokees and other tribes living in or around eastern settlements, whose cultures and blood had, by this time, intermingled with that of the Europeans. The adoption of new modes of dress and customs was at odds with the perceived authenticity of the doomed race, and was scrupulously avoided in their paintings and photographs.
The artists’ quest to preserve images of the noble savage in his unspoiled state served to diminish society’s understanding, both then and now, of the complexity of First Nations cultures in flux. To the Romantic, if Aboriginals didn’t appear in everyday life, as portrayed in Catlin’s paintings and Curtis’s photographs (in buckskins and feathers), they were well on their way to extinction. Banished to the dustbin of art history, and the ethnology wing of the museum, the First Nations are forever trapped in these paintings and photographs as “monuments of a noble race” (Catlin). But many nations of us are still here – saddled with the challenge of our authenticity being measured against this romantic ideal.
These paintings worked effectively as propaganda that disseminated the theory of the vanishing race: this notion was convincing to the Euro-North American audience, and helped facilitate the seizure of lands and expansion of western settlement. The forcible and repeated displacement of Aboriginal peoples from their lands “was a singularly brutal and dramatic moment in the history of the United States, yet no hint of it ever appeared on canvas” 1. How many other Aboriginal narratives are missing from the authoritative canon of art history? […]
In Trappers of Men, a reclaimed Bierstadt landscape is the backdrop for a tableau that weaves together a criss-crossing narrative of art, histories and mythologies. The players feature several artists, trappers, mountain men, fur traders and explorers who are captured in a moment of epiphany.
Notable characters include from left to right, Edward Curtis and models, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, George Catlin, Lone Dog and his winter count (buffalo hide), Bruce Bailey Esq., Whistlejacket, Lewis and Clark, and Alexander Mackenzie.
August 14, 2006
1 Julie Schimmel, Inventing the Indian, from The West as America : Re-interpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, National Museum of American Art, by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991