The Culture of Empire on Catlin’s Canvas

The Culture of Empire on Catlin’s Canvas

Justin Abello

Justin Abello is a junior in the College at Georgetown University, double majoring in Government and History with a minor in English. He is from Los Angeles and is currently studying abroad in Lyon, France. He hopes to enter into a career in politics after he graduates. His studies in history have concentrated on the United States and Western Europe, focusing on political, military, and social issues.


When painter George Catlin traveled to Paris in the 1840s to showcase his American Indian exhibition, he brought with him live Indian performers, seemingly authentic Indian regalia, and paintings of the “Native American way of life,” all of which entranced the French public. Yet Catlin was not solely motivated by a desire for the fame or fortune that he would receive in Europe. He was also fascinated by America’s “vanishing race,” an interest that had been sparked by his journey up the Mississippi River into Indian territory in 1830 when he accompanied General William Clark on a diplomatic mission. Catlin painted landscapes of the American wilderness and portraits of Native Americans as a way to protect them, by preserving them in art, from the culture of empire in his home country. The American Empire was uniquely characterized by both a desire for imperialistic expansion and, paradoxically, a reluctance to admit that it was, in fact, an empire. The philosopher Josiah Royce observed as early as the 1880s that “The American as conqueror is unwilling to appear in public as a pure aggressor…even when he violently takes what he has determined to get.”[1] Americans’ unwillingness to acknowledge their nation’s imperial character led a different kind of imperial culture to take shape in the United States than was developing in European nations. The United States struggled to incorporate conquered peoples into its imperial framework; in reference to its Native American population, the federal government followed a policy of Anglicization and removal. Consequently, the Native American way of life was disappearing during Catlin’s time, and his paintings of America’s indigenous peoples acted both as a representation of and a response to America’s distinct culture of empire. This paper will discuss Donald Meinig’s concept of American imperialism and how the artwork of George Catlin reflected it.

In order to fully appreciate the United States’ unique brand of imperialism, one must understand the concept of “democratic imperialism” used by geographer and historian Donald W. Meinig. According to Meinig, “democratic imperialism,” unlike traditional imperialism, was characterized by conquest in which the citizenry, not the central government, acted as the primary agent in directing expansion. In other words, due to its democratic nature and federal system, the American government was beholden to the wants of its states and their citizens, who were the primary agents consistently pushing for expansion. Rather than sending out its armies ahead of its citizens to conquer new lands and peoples, the federal government “sent [its armies] out, time and again, to impose order upon the chaos arising from the unbridled aggression of its frontier citizens trespassing into [new] territories.”[2]

This distinct pattern of using force to maintain order only after Americans had already entered and subdued new territory made it easier for Americans to, in Royce’s words, “persuade not only the world but [themselves] that [they were] doing God’s service in a peaceable spirit.”[3] Americans were therefore able to view their culture of conquest in a positive light when they compared it to the aggressive territorial seizures of their European counterparts. However according to Meinig, this “democratic imperialism” had more devastating effects than its traditional manifestation:

As a result, the United States was an unusually severe imperial power. It demanded more than simple submission to political authority: it declared the drastic displacement of native peoples from their homelands, and it undertook a program to pressure them into abandoning the most basic features of their way of life, of their identity as a people. Such contempt for the culture of subordinated groups, intolerance of their existence as separate and vital societies, and indifference to their survival as people were not, to be sure, unprecedented. But the United States was the most massive and systematic case of its time and notable as well for enveloping the whole drastic process with assurances to the people involved and to the rest of the world of its special virtues and noble intentions.[4]

Yet this American brand of imperialism did not remain static throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries; some historians make a distinction between the methods by which the United States pursued continental and overseas expansion. Historian Stuart Miller argues that American expansion across the underpopulated North American continent was a less conscious, more natural act in the minds of American settlers than crossing an ocean and conquering non-contiguous territory, as when the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam at the beginning of the twentieth century. Americans had a difficult time justifying this kind of expansion; compared to the acquisition of Indian lands in North America, the concept of annexing overseas territories did not fit as well into the framework of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief amongst Americans that the expansion of the United States throughout the North American continent was both justified and inevitable. Therefore, they began to promote the extension of democracy to places like the Philippines in order to continue seeing their expansion in a positive light.[5] In this way, the focus shifted from a strategy of overwhelming and replacing indigenous people, as was the case with the American Indians, to one of spreading American culture and reviving the notion of assimilation. Historians, like Miller, view this shift in justification as a major change in American imperialism to a more traditional form of imperialism. However, this paper will focus on the unique American variation of imperialism with regards to North American Indians. Americans’ unique “democratic imperialism” acted as the driving force behind the United States government’s policies toward Native Americans and dictated how those policies were implemented.

Within the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government stopped treating Indian tribes as foreign nations and started viewing them as dependent satellites. The treaties once forged between the United States and the Indian tribes turned into mandates from the federal government, which withheld a sense of agency on the part of the Indians that earlier treaties acknowledged. This shift in the legal perception of Indian tribes by American officials meant that “the eventual complete subjugation of all Indians to American jurisdiction [would be] on American terms,” usually unfavorable to the former.[6] The Native Americans, however, presented a different problem of incorporation than the French Creoles that the United States government had integrated into its empire around the same after the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican citizens that the U.S. would later integrate with the annexation of Texas and California after the Mexican American War that ended in 1848. Because of larger Native populations and the sheer size of the Native Indian territory, the U.S. could not simply flood their lands with Americans as it did and would do in Louisiana, Texas, and California. “The United States had to deal with Indians in some comprehensive way,” but because of its unwillingness to see itself as an aggressor, some other “means of salvation” were needed for white Americans.[7] This salvation materialized in the form of Anglicization and removal, the former implemented under the Jefferson presidency through the offering of citizenship to those Indians who chose to stay east of the Mississippi River and the latter culminated in the Indian Removal Act of 1830 in which eastern Indian tribes were forcefully moved to the western Indian Territory. Catlin’s paintings encapsulated these policies by depicting people and scenes that portrayed their results.

Catlin’s portraits of Western-looking Indian subjects displayed Americans’ unsuccessful attempts to fully assimilate the Native populations into the American empire. Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington accurately portrays the futile nature of Anglicization efforts. The painting depicts an Assiniboine warrior out of place in both American and Native societies because of his attempt to assimilate.[8] The left half of the painting shows Pigeon’s Egg Head on his way to Washington, D.C. in full Native warrior costume. This stoic figure, contrasted with the alabaster buildings of Washington D.C. in the background, highlights the idea that Native cultures did not seem to have a place in the developing American Republic. In the right half of the painting, Catlin depicts Pigeon’s Egg Head’s return to his tribe after being Anglicized during his time in the American capital; upon his return, the warrior is out of place within his own cultural world, as his Western-style clothing and trinkets sharply contrast with the teepees in the background. His transformation from a noble warrior holding a peace pipe into a haughty dandy with a crooked posture and pockets filled with alcohol represented what Catlin saw as the failing of Anglicization. Pigeon Egg Head’s fellow tribesmen would later reject his accounts of the white man’s cities and eventually kill him for his persistence in telling such “lies.”[9] The U.S. government’s efforts to change Indians “from nations into citizens, [to reorient them] from communal life into individual life” brought not assimilation into America’s empire, but a corrupting of the “noble savage’s” soul.[10]

Along with portraying the transformation of Indian cultures, Catlin’s paintings also showcased the assortment and conflict of cultures (seen in his paintings Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, a Chief and Comanche Meeting the Dragoons, respectively) present in Indian Territory because of the American policy of removal. American officials turned to physically removing Native Americans to create space for the expanding American empire after encountering Native Americans who could not, and in many cases would not, fully Anglicize. While Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the U.S. government “had entered the business of removing eastern tribes from their ancestral lands to reservations west of the Mississippi” much earlier through coercive purchases of Indian territory and attempts at land exchanges under presidents from Jefferson to Monroe, demonstrated by Catlin’s portrait Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, a Chief.[11] Little Chief has a clear European appearance in the painting, seen in his wearing of a cravat and petticoat, the style of his hair, and the conventional, seated pose he takes on for the portrait. For Catlin, Little Chief represents a more successful assimilation into Anglo-American culture than Pigeon’s Egg Head was able to make, as Little Chief’s depiction lacks the negative symbols of alcoholism and corruption that Catlin intentionally placed in his illustration of the Pigeon’s Egg Head. Yet, Little Chief was still clearly distinguished as a member of the Kaskaskia, an Indian tribe originally from Illinois, by the pipe he held. The fact that Catlin encountered Little Chief living with his tribe in Kansas in 1830 makes it clear that these removals had been occurring over a long period of time and shows how American removal policies affected a wide range of Indian tribes. Along with Little Chief’s Kaskaskia, the U.S. government pushed eastern Indian tribes like the Choctaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Chickasaw west of the Mississippi River, creating a diverse assortment of cultures within the Indian Territory.

When federal removal policies sent these eastern tribes into lands already occupied by western Indians, conflicts sprang up between the different Indian cultural groups now present in the same region. These cultural conflicts surprised many white Americans who had assumed that Indian tribes could “easily cooperate, amalgamate, fuse into some larger body,” completely disregarding the “complicated history of relations among tribes.”[12] Catlin captured this volatile environment in his depiction of a Comanche war party coming to meet American officials in Comanche Meeting the Dragoons.[13] By 1834, tensions among the indigenous tribes and the newcomers within the Indian Territory flared, and the U.S. government sent a troop of dragoons from Fort Gibson near present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma, to summon the Comanche and neighboring tribes to a peace council.[14] Catlin’s painting depicts this meeting, with a Comanche warrior on horseback taking a prominent place in the foreground. The warrior exudes a sense of power and strength, with his milk-white horse in an upright pose and a long, pointed lance by his side. His figure looms large in the center of the painting, taking up a great deal of space and pushing the figures of the American delegation off to the left side of the portrait; it is clear that he is the focus of this image. In the background, the rest of the war party follows his lead, a seemingly unending line of Comanche warriors riding out from the horizon. While the reason for the encounter was to initiate a peace council, the painting makes sure to denote the underlying volatile environment created by U.S. removal policies by depicting an intimidating war party that reminds viewers of the military strength of the Comanches and the violent context that necessitated the diplomatic meeting.

While many of Catlin’s paintings display the effects of Anglicization and removal on Native Americans, they also represent a response to the American culture of empire. The growth of the American empire led to conception of “the idea of the Indians as a vanishing race” in the minds of Americans.[15] If Indians could not sustain their culture, Catlin could preserve it in his paintings; he saw his Indian Exhibition, which included live performances of Indian war dances and cultural paraphernalia from the various tribes he had visited in addition to the over 600 paintings he created, as a way to “rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs.”[16] By painting scenes of buffalo hunts, religious ceremonies, and Indians in their native garb, Catlin was saving what he saw as “the proud and heroic elegance of a savage society, in a state of pure and original nature, beyond the reach of civilization.”[17] This notion of the “noble savage” was a common theme throughout Catlin’s Indian collection. The idea is best symbolized in Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress, a portrait of a Native American man who Catlin described as having “more grace and manly dignity” than any tragedian or gladiator.[18] His deerskin leggings, eagle feather headdress, buffalo horns, and decorated shirt created an image that would become over the years an overarching symbol for the North American Indian, representing a culture that many white Americans saw as soon to be extinct. His upright posture, similar to Pigeon’s Egg Head’s, denotes a sense of nobility, but unlike Pigeon’s Egg Head, he does not look despondently unto a landscape of alabaster buildings and carry a peace pipe. Rather, he holds his head up in the painting and looks out into a scene of nature with a sort of half-smile on his face and a spear in his hand. These elements denote both a seeming acceptance of his people’s doomed fate and a willingness to go down fighting. While these two aspects of the painting are perhaps a little contradictory, the overall image provides insight into what Catlin saw as the more preferable reaction by Indians to American imperialism, Máh-to-tóh-pa’s dignified resignation over Pigeon’s Egg Head’s attempted assimilation.

Historians value Catlin’s paintings as important representations of and responses to the culture of empire in the early United States, but what has made and kept them so relevant is that they highlighted the paradoxical relationship between Americans’ ceaseless drive for progress, seen in the spread of white institutions and practices that demanded the surrender of the Indian way of life, and their infatuation with the native cultures consumed in the process. As the American empire expanded and developed, the former usually took precedence over the latter; many Americans understood Indian “tribal extinction as a lamentable necessity of ‘progress,’” despite whatever favorable views they held about the noble savage and his lifestyle.[19] This kind of resignation towards the destruction of native cultures spurred Catlin to adopt a romanticized view of them, but he was not alone in this regard. One could see Catlin as part of a larger movement among imperial peoples to preserve indigenous cultures threatened by Euro-American expansion. During this same period, the American writer James Fenimore Cooper became famous for his descriptions of the American wilderness of the Northeast in his book The Last of the Mohicans, and the French artist Eugène Delacroix gained prominence through his sketches of “Arab chieftains and lion hunts” in Morocco.[20] In this way, Catlin provides insights into the development of an international culture of empire in addition to the ones he reveals about American imperialism. The culture of empire may have eventually destroyed the native societies that these artists depicted, but their customs, people, and way of life have been preserved, in a sense, through such artistic endeavors, and in the case of the American Indians have become immortal upon the canvas of Catlin’s paintings.



[1] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (Yale UP, 1993), 192.

[2] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 193.

[3] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 192.

[4] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 193.

[5] Stuart Creighton Miller, Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (Yale University Press: 1982), 1-12.

[6] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 179.

[7] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 183.

[8] George Catlin, Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From                   Washington (1837-39).

[9] “Catlin Virtual Exhibition,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web.

[10] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 180.

[11] George Catlin, Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, a Chief (1830).

[12] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 180-81.

[13] George Catlin, Comanche Meeting the Dragoons (1834-35).

[14] “Catlin Virtual Exhibition,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web.

[15] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 195.

[16] “Catlin Virtual Exhibition,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web.

[17] David McCullough, The Greater Journey (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 2011), 167 .

[18] George Catlin, Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress (1832).

[19] D.W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, 195.

[20] David McCullough, The Greater Journey, 173.


Works Cited

Catlin, George. Comanche Meeting the Dragoons. 1834-35. Smithsonian American Art

Museum, Washington D.C. Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Catlin, George. Kee-món-saw, Little Chief, a Chief. 1830. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Catlin, George. Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress. 1832. Smithsonian                      American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Smithsonian American Art Museum and the               Renwick Gallery. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

Catlin, George. Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From                        Washington. 1837-39. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.                            Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

“Catlin Virtual Exhibition.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C. Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

McCullough, David. The Greater Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 2011.

Meinig, D.W. The Shaping of America, A Geographical perspective on 500 Years of History;                    Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Miller, Stuart Creighton. Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903. Yale University Press, 1982.