American Art of the Week

American Art of the Week: Co-ee-há-jo, a Seminole Chief by George Catlin

Co-ee-ha-jo, a Seminole Chief by George Catlin, 1837 [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was a unique sort of artist/anthropologist/social activist/entertainment producer combination who achieved lasting notoriety for his sympathetic paintings of Native Americans. Having become interested in Native American culture at a young age, the adult Catlin travelled throughout the American west with William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) to visit and depict members of the plains tribes. Catlin eventually painted more than five hundred portraits of Native Americans and curated an “Indian Gallery” touring exhibition of his works. An early champion for Native Americans’ rights during the time of forced resettlement, Catlin used his art and writing as both a quasi-anthropological record of native life and a form of activism. However, he also staged shows featuring Native American performers in elaborate battle scenes, so many have accused him of harboring a profit motive above and beyond his respect for the tribes.

Much of Catlin’s Indian Gallery is now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is where the above painting comes from. In the Smithsonian’s exhibition literature, a clear distinction is made between Catlin’s images painted in the west and other artists’ portraits of Native Americans of diplomatic visits to the east coast. I highly doubt that the diplomatic portraits were anywhere near as compelling as Catlin’s.


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