Portraying Plains Indians for Posterity 1821-1837
One of the earliest artists of North American Indians was Charles Bird King. Born in Rhode Island in 1785, King's early interest in painting had been encouraged by some of the leading artists of the day. By 1820 he achieved a reputation as a painter of important Americans.
In 1821, prominent members of several Indian tribes were pursuaded to visit Washington, DC, and King had an opportunity to paint some portraits of them. He depicted their facial features with a success that was lacking in other painters' efforts.
Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian Trade, commissioned King to do portraits of eight members of the delegation to hang in his office in Georgetown. These paintings comprise the first series of oil paintings of prominent Indians of the West and remain the most popular of his work. They became the nucleus of the famous National Indian Portrait Gallery of nearly 150 portraits of Indian visitors to Washington during the years 1820-37.
King's paintings were the basis for faithful and coloful lithographs illustrating the biographical sketches in Thomas McKenney's and James Hall's work, History of the Indian Tribes of North America.
"Published in Philadelphia in 1837-44, this king-sized work became a landmark in American Indian studies largely because of its exquisite portraits. Its handsome plates are still coveted collector's items."
It was fortunate the lithographs were made because the National Indian Portrait Gallery paintings were lost in a fire at the Smithsonian Institute in 1865 and these lithographs remain the best source for what King had painted.
Synopsis extracted and/or quoted from Artists of the Old West,
John C. Ewers, Doubleday & Co., 1973, pp 33-43.