Social Darwinism and the West as American Identity

Sarah Kuenzler is an independent researcher who holds a Masters in Art History from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her thesis focused on the orientalization of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the American artist Elihu Vedder, and her current research delves into aspects of racism and the collectable minority of 19th century trade cards. You can follow her on twitter @19thAmerican.

What is American about American art? This question makes its appearance in the early nineteenth century. In the quest to establish itself as an independent nation, Americans grappled with their European past and the inevitable cultural mix contributing to the growth of the United States. The answer came through Western expansion – in the exploration of newly discovered territories, Americans discovered the vast and powerful beauty of the canyons and mountains. At once humbling and terrifying, these uncharted landscapes would come to embody the very “American-ness” of the genre of American art. Far from the mythological and grand historical themes found in great European masterworks, the American West represented a unique power as artistic muse – rugged, self-sustaining independence that found its visual home in the works of American artists George Catlin (1796-1872) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909). Cowboys and Indians, the most popular and pervasive subject matter in the myth of the West, represented the exact enduring spirit the American people were looking for at the turn of the century. Working at opposite ends of the 1800s, Catlin and Remington’s works depict a shift in American opinion about the West and Natives – from awe of the natural elements and its peoples, to one of manifest destiny and Darwinism, placing Native Americans below the American citizen.

George Catlin, Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s’ Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832, Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.9 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin, Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s’ Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832, Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.9 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin was born in 1796 near Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Originally pushed to become a lawyer by his family, Catlin had ambitions to become a great history painter.[i] He studied as an artist informally in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy from 1824, and set out West between 1832 and 1837.[ii] The writings of Lewis and Clark’s expedition from only three decades earlier[iii] presented the West as a place of myth and legend, one which rivaled the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome.[iv] The excitement of artistic excursions West were also self-serving; the geography of the Western frontier was unique to North America and, therefore, would contribute to the shaping of the American identity.[v]

Catlin’s work gained popularity in his focus on the Native population of the West. During his travels, Catlin wrote about his experiences in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians[vi] and “dramatically [inserted] the idea of right and wrong into the developing western story.”[vii] With the fur trade burgeoning around him, Catlin wrote,

It seems hard and cruel…that we civilized people with all the luxuries and comforts of the world about us, should be drawing from the backs of these useful animals the skins for our luxury, leaving their carcasses to be devoured by the wolves…The Indian’s necessities are entirely artificial – are all created ; and when the buffaloes shall have disappeared in his country, which will be within eight or ten years…who is to supply him with the necessaries of life then?[viii]

Catlin’s works of portraiture of Indian Chiefs were particularly well-received by the American public, who likened them to the great gladiators the ancient world. In his recollections for his portrait of Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears (fig. 1), Catlin writes,

George Catlin, Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in full dress, 1830. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.9 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin, Máh-to-tóh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in full dress, 1830. Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 60.9 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum

No tragedian ever trod the stage, nor gladiator ever entered the Roman Forum, with more grace and manly dignity than did Mah-to-toh-pah enter the wigwam, where I was in readiness to receive him. He took his attitude before me, and with the sternness of a Brutus and the stillness of a statue, he stood until the darkness of night broke upon the solitary stillness.[ix]

Catlin sympathized with the plight of the Indians, especially since the aggressive policy of Indian removal, initiated by the Jackson administration in 1830, was in full swing during his years out West.[x] Catlin presents the Indian as a strong individual, one who deserves the freedom of the West and suffers directly from white intervention – and one who is an integral part of the West which was defining this new American identity. Not all artists were so accommodating. As the years passed, public opinion of Western art shifted, resulting in pieces which display the majesty of the West while ignoring or minimizing the presence of Natives.

Frederic Remington was born in Canton, New York in October of 1861. Beginning first as an illustrator for Harpers Weekly, and later finding fame as a painter and sculptor, Remington’s works are widely considered the driving force behind the “myth of the West.” While he did spend time out West witnessing the day to day life of prospectors and cowboys, Remington’s illustrations were largely based on hearsay and compiled images.[xi] Although his images were realistic down to the most minute detail, the overall grand narrative he presented to the public was one which he himself devised – one which painted the West as a grand place for the domination of the Cowboy over the (increasingly savage) Native.

Despite the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century, the Wests’ grand beauty had been largely clear-cut and mined,[xii] Remington was praised for his “reliable” images of Wild Western innocence. He was even referred to as the “Old West’s most reliable reporter…[drawing] only what he knows and his knowledge can be relied on, even to small details.”[xiii] A Cavalryman’s Breakfast on the Plains of 1892 (fig. 2) is the perfect example of Remington’s talent for creating believable scenes with high attention to detail. The uniforms of the men in the cavalry are portrayed with great accuracy, and the fading line of soldiers and horses into the distance in the background gives the work that sense of Western space. The poses of the men in the foreground are strong and self-assured, reinforcing the Cowboy as a revered figure who survives and thrives in the West despite harsh conditions and isolation.

Frederic Remington, Return of a Blackfoot War Party, 1887, Oil on canvas, 28.5 50 cm, American Museum of Western Art, the Anschutz Collection, Denver

Frederic Remington, A Cavalryman’s Breakfast on the Plains, 1890, Oil on canvas, 22 x 32 1/8 in., Amon Carter Museum of Western Art

While Remington portrayed the Western-bound American as a strong and admirable individual, his images of Natives were afflicted by a different kind of profiling. Remington believed, like many nineteenth century Americans, that Indians were savages who needed to be tamed. Remington’s works featuring Indians as the primary subject matter cater to the white, suburban audience, focusing on elements of Native culture which would appear savage and warlike.[xiv] Again, even though these images are alive with detail and artistic skill, the works Remington is known for are largely not images he witness in his time out West, but rather narratives he collected and then assembled in his studio to create the maximum effect.

Frederic Remington, Return of a Blackfoot War Party, 1887, Oil on canvas, 28.5 50 cm, American Museum of Western Art, the Anschutz Collection, Denver

Frederic Remington,
Return of a Blackfoot War Party, 1887, Oil on canvas, 28.5 50 cm, American Museum of Western Art, the Anschutz Collection, Denver

Return of the Blackfoot War Party (fig. 3) of 1887 is a particularly striking piece in this regard, and demonstrates how Remington used his attention to detail to create re-usable racial types to subtly communicate to his audience the savagery of the Natives.[xv] On the whole, the work presents a harrowing scene – raiders of the Blackfoot War Party have returned victorious, captives in tow, mercilessly pulling them through the snow towards the commune. A winter storm rages around the group, enhancing the violence of the scene and the events which must have led to this point. It is the depiction of the Natives themselves, however, which would reaffirm the beliefs of the nineteenth century viewer.

In order to maintain his high level of accuracy and consistency when depicting the West, Remington created his own reference of types. These types included both Cowboys and Indians, and was a compendium of knowledge from which Remington would draw for his works. However, because of his belief in Social Darwinism, the “types” he created for Natives only served to reinforce the stereotype of the “savage indian,” rather than to document the culture for a white audience.[xvi]

Frederic Remington, In the lodges of the Blackfeet Indians, c. 1880. “Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press”

Frederic Remington,
In the lodges of the Blackfeet Indians, c. 1880. “Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press”

The Blackfeet Indians were particularly targeted in Remington’s sketches, as seen in figure 5. This page shows the “types” of Blackfoot Indians, including the warrior, the “squaw,” and an individual labeled as “Man-shot” at the top of the page. This profile features what historian Joshua Brown has called “physiognomic codes of race”:

…Man-Shot’s mouth is open, his brow is sloped, his expression is hard –  details that are not an accident. That is, Remington’s depiction of Man-Shot emphasized his ‘savage’ facial features, a way of racially coding the worst characteristics of Blackfoot warriors… By depicting Man-Shot as dour and primitive, Remington was identifying him as particular Indian ‘type’ that he (and Harper’s readers) had come to expect in the West. This was the Indian image that Remington went on to celebrate in his most popular… paintings, the Indian warrior who could be rendered as a racially distinct enemy, a physically identifiable, exotic ‘other.’[xvii]

The same exaggerated physical features can be seen in the Blackfoot work, in the leader of the party and the Indian holding the whip. The artistic choice made by Remington to emphasize these features speaks to the visual language of social Darwinism of the nineteenth century, and contributed to the myth of the West as a victorious prize for an independent American nation.

[i] The West of the Imagination, 15-16.

[ii] Myth of the West, 29.

[iii] Myth of the West, 29.

[iv] …in 1830 the West was a huge untapped artistic opportunity already charged with fantastic literary associations, from the journals of Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike, and Stephen Long t the fictions of James Fenimore Cooper and Timothy Flint. Alfred Jacob Miller would admonish artists to forget about Greece and Egypt and go West. Myth of the West, 27.

[v] Myth of the West, 29.

[vi] Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. London: Tile and Bogue, 1842.

[vii] Myth of the West, 39.

[viii] Letters and Notes, vol. 1, 263.

[ix] Letters and Notes, vol. 1, 145-46.

[x] “The early-nineteenth-century push to remove Indians from their eastern lands often resulted from an ideological dilemma caused by a desire to allow for the ‘natural’ expansion of the United States without destroying its Native Peoples…” “Removal resulted in total despair, a social death that resulted from the Indians’ physical removal from their ancient homelands…For the Indians in the East, removal exacerbated and created factions the would outline removal for many generations and it created animosities that would live for much longer.” Native American Removal, 2013.

[xi] Myth of the West, 111-112.

[xii] Myth of the West, 83.

[xiii] Myth of the West, 111.

[xiv] The white American audience of the nineteenth century consumed information about Native cultures largely through “…dime novels and wild west shows…” Race-ing Art History, 160.

[xv] Remington saw evidence for social evolution as he traveled in the American West. Pioneers and frontiersmen—that is, white, civilized Christians—were at the top of the evolutionary hierarchy, Remington believed, while Negroes and Indians, among others, were several rungs down the evolutionary ladder. Indians could be admired for their physical prowess, Remington thought, but they were in no way the intellectual equal of whites. Indians Illustrated, 154.

[xvi] Remington’s social Darwinism reflects a common nineteenth-century belief that Indians were primitive, instinctive creatures, more akin to animals than to civilized human beings. This idea also represents an explanatory motive for some of Remington’s most interesting Indian illustrations, images that attempted to capture the mysteries of these “strange” and very different people. Indians Illustrated, 155.

[xvii] Indians Illustrated, 158.

 

Bibliography

Bruce, Chris. Myth of the West. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Coward, John M. Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press.

Catlin, George. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. London: Tile and Bogue, 1842.

Frank, Andrew K. “Native American Removal.” A Companion to the Era of Andrew Jackson. Adams, Sean Patrick (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2013. Blackwell Reference Online. 1 July 2016 <http://www.blackwellreference.com/subscriber/tocnode.htmlid=g9781444335415_chunk_g978144433541522>

Goetzmann, William H., and William N. Goetzmann. The West of the Imagination. New York: Norton, 1986.

Hassrick, Peter H. The Way West: Art of Frontier America. New York: Abrams, 1977.

Pinder, Kymberly N. Race-ing Art History: Critical Readings in Race and Art History. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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