The camera was not yet with us, the West was not yet won, when Petalesharro, the Pawnee, first visited this city in 1821. He walked the unpaved streets, he met with the Great Father, he had his portrait painted by artist Charles Bird King.
Petalesharro's portrait - and copies of the painting, and copies of the copies, the latter mass-produced - are included in the Indian show which will be on view all summer at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology. The exhibition makes one look. It also makes one think.
The legend on the wall reads "From drawings to paintings to lithographs." The Indian portraits shown are displayed in groups of four:
A charcoal portrait drawn from life by King.
The formal oil portrait King then worked up from his drawing.
Another oil painting, this one by Henry Inman, the Philadelphia artist who made copies of King's work for lithographic draftsmen, and
The final product, a pass-produced, hand-colored lithograph printed from the stone on which lithographers had copied Inman's copy of the portrait made by King.
The show is called "Perfect Likenesses." The title is ironic.
The likenesses aren't perfect, they change with very step. Landscape backgrounds disappear, war-paint colors alter. The faces of the indians shift. Their Indian-ness diminishes as their poses grow more formal and their noses grow more Grecian.
The differences are subtle, it takes the viewer time to discriminate between them. One is asked to study small things - the color of a feather, the arching of an eyebrow - but as one focuses on details, larger questions grow.
Did the Indians really look like that? What forces made these artists, who were striving for exactitude, drive their pictures step-by-step towards some 19th-century ideal? How credible are works of art as documents of history? What is it that they show?
Something here is wrong. Petalesharro, Shaumonekusse, Pushmataha, and the other faces here - Charles Bird King made more than 100 Indian portraits - look somewhow less like Indians than like actors wearing warpaint constumed for the movies. Tustinnuggee, in his turban, seems an Afghan or a Turk, Major Ridge resembles a prosperious English landowner, Mohongo poses with her child as if acting the Madonna in some European church.
Washington artist Charles Bird King was born in Newport in 1785. Though his father, Capt. Zebulon King, was killed and scalped by Indians in Ohio when young King was 4, the painter did not hold a grudge. The portraits he ground out, on government commission between 1821 and 1842, were among the first to show Indians as individuals.
King's figures are not allegories. They are not Noble Savages. Yet they do not look like aliens. He made them look like us.
They have European expressions, Europeans posses. They no more resemble the people of the plains than real Latins, blacks or Jews resemble those who "represent" them in Norman Lear's situation comedies. King thought he was recording faces for posterity, but King, and those who copied him, were the market for a public that could only see traditional Western Art.
That madonna is supposed to look innocent, maternal; that young chief heroic. The lithographs the printers manufactured from his paintings were sold by subscription to genteel buyers who wanted "perfect likenesses" that looked like works of art.
The drawing books of those days insisted that good draftsmen could report the visual truth "without the possibility of error." Those who saw the Indians walking towards the White House on the muddy streets of Washington were sure that King's small portraits reported what they'd seen.
King's gallery of Indians was exhibited on M Street in "The Archives of the American Indian," Washington's first federal museum. Many were later moved to the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, where a fire destroyed most of them in 1865. The mass-market lithographs, for which they served as models, were published by Thomas L. McKenney, a government official who founded the Archives between 1836 and 1844.
The show, which is about history, portraiture, art conventions and the print - and also about Indians - was organized by Peter Marzio, the museum's curator of graphic arts, and historian-anthropologist Herman J. Viola, who heads the Smithsonian's National Anthoropological Archives. If you can find it, in the special exhibits gallery on the third floor of the museum, it is one that should be seen.
A large retrospective of King's work, not just his Indian portraits, will open in the fall at the National Collection of Fine Arts. He was a minor painter. He is remembered now less for the beauty of his pictures than for the information, credible or not, he packed into his art.