George Catlin's (1796-1872) painting
Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) going to and returning from Washington (painted 1837-1839), is one of the most interesting
documents to emerge from that artist's distinguished career painting Native
Americans. No less moving is his written commentary on the episode.
Pigeon's Egg Head, of the Assineboine
tribe, was part of a delegation which traveled in 1831-1832 from near the head
of the Yellowstone River, down the Missouri River, and thence to Washington,
DC. Catlin knew him because they met at St. Louis as Pigeon's Egg Head travelled
east, and painted him there. He happened upon him again as he returned, painted
him again, and accompanied him all the way back home.
The sensitive Catlin regretted what
was happening to the native peoples as a result of the expansion of the United
States, but he appears to have seen the interaction as inevitably pursuing a
fatal course. His picture makes a programmatic statement about white-indian
culture clash through a "before and after" pair of portraits of Pigeon's
Egg Head. Though it might seem at first sight that Catlin was trying for a cheap laugh, he was in fact a very sympathetic (and honest) observer, and it is not
possible to view his painting without both learning something about human nature
and feeling very sad.
The painting (see the URL below)
is divided vertically into two halves. On the left we see Pigeon's Egg Head
as he looked to Catlin in St. Louis (imagined on the open plain with the White
House symbolically beckoning in the distance). On the right we see him as Catlin
saw him on his return, in American military garb, this time with the tepees
of home beckoning. A closer look reveals the artistry and pathos of the
Pigeon's Egg Head before.
The before picture offers us a noble
savage embarking on a great adventure. His weight is on his right leg, which
rises in a powerful straight line which extends through his body to the top
of his head. He has no heels on his moccasins, of course, and as a result his
foot (both feet, actually) appear firmly planted on the ground. The effect,
both real and symbolic, implies a dignified stability. His left leg bears no
weight and the knee is thrown confidently forward. The line of his thigh continues
up his forearm, and curves sinuously at the elbow, rising to his high, noble
brow like a reverse-S. Here the effect is one of natural, sinewy strength.
This curve is also emphasized and set off by the colored beadwork running from
his "collar" down his shoulder, caught by a yellow decoration on his
peace pipe, and then carried down in more beadwork along the outside of his
Over his right shoulder (which we
cannot see) is thrown with apparent casualness a richly decorated cloak of buffalo
skin. It hides his right arm, and its massing and folds consciously evoke the toga of
the Roman citizen-warrior with his simple virtues. The fitting, natural dignity
of his costume is hardly an accident. It is beautifully ornamented, with its
countless tassles and the impressive visual rhythm of the many feathers in his
bonnet, underscored by the dark line of his long hair. Its dignity is supported
by the fact that its richness is belied by its restrained color palette--beiges,
ochres, yellows, and greens. No king ever looked nobler,
but it is clear that this man's nobility has been conferred by nature, not something
as banally conventional as a bloodline.
His impressively stoic face, viewed
in profile, plays to every expectation we have of the pride inherent in such
a man. The eyes look fearlessly (and tranquilly) ahead with a frank gaze; his
nose is drawn in such a way as to heighten the effect of dignified restraint.
His neck is drawn thick--muscled, I suppose, since Catlin says he was young.
The head and neck again suggest stability.
Lastly, his peace pipe. He carries
it as a token of his mission with an easy, powerful grip (see how the wrist
bends ever so subtly, the carefully posed index finger). He carries it not for
the purposes of intoxication but more the way a king bears a scepter. Here is Catlin's
account of the sitting:
Wi-jun-jon . . . reluctantly yielded
to the solicitations of the Indian agent and myself, and appeared as sullen
as death in my painting-room, with eyes fixed like those of a statue upon
me, though his pride had plumed and tinted him in all the freshness and brilliancy
of an Indian's toilet. In his nature's uncowering
pride he stood a perfect model; but superstition had hung a lingering curve
upon his lip, and pride had stiffened it into contempt. He had been urged
into a measure, against which his fears had pleaded; yet he stood unmoved
and unflinching amid the struggles of mysteries that were hovering about him,
foreboding ills of every kind, and misfortunes that were to happen to him
in consequence of this operation.
He was dressed in his native costume, which was classic and exceedingly beautiful;
his leggings and shirt were of the mountaingoat skin, richly garnished with
quills of the porcupine, and fringed with locks of scalps, taken from his
enemies' heads. Over these floated his long hair in plaits, that fell nearly
to the ground; his head was decked with the war-eagle's plumes—his robe
was of the skin of the young buffalo bull, richly garnished and emblazoned
with the battles of his life; his quiver and bow were slung, and his shield,
of the skin of the bull's neck.
Pigeon's Egg Head after.
How changed the man upon his return!
He had, by Catlin's account, made quite a swath through Washington society (not
least, we are told, with the ladies). They were attracted to that same side
of him we see in the before picture, but in an all-too-familiar story, they
destroyed what they loved, by imposing themselves, or rather, the outward effects of their culture, on
The after picture echoes the before
in subtle ways, but more stridently emphasizes Pigeon's Egg Head's massive corruption.
He is dressed in a US military uniform which Catlin supposes to have been presented
by the President of the United States in exchange for his native costume.
Gone is the contrapposto. He stands
flat on his two feet, his weight equally, if clumsily, distributed in an attempt
to reach stability. This man is perched visibly on the high heels of military
boots, which initiate a sense of instability carried through the rest of his
posture. His right leg is slightly bent at the knee (and the left leg suggests
the same, though more subtly); because he is planted on both feet, the posture
suggests that he is teetering, or in real danger of falling over backwards.
In fact, the distinguishing characteristic
of Pigeon's Egg Head's "after" portrait is instability. The slight curve of his right
leg is carried up in a curve that continues gently up and back through his upper
torso well behind his center of gravity. The arm delicately holding the umbrella not only
attracts our attention to his off-balance pose (he brandishes it like a dandy), but in fact carries the off-balance curve around . .
. around . . . to the point where it's gone around in a near circle. The pose
of the right arm also works to reinforce the curves suggesting instability by
rising in front of him and creating another curve that bends back. Here Catlin seeks to represent a moral truth by visual means: Pigeon's Egg Head is a man who has lost his moral balance.
The liquor bottles in his back pockets
suggest one reason for his lack of balance. Before we let centuries of white complicity in Native American alcohol abuse prompt us to a harsh judgment of Catlin, we ought to remember that
this was painted a long time ago, before much of that ugliness became history. The bottles do not seem so much a shot at Pigeon's Egg Head himself as
they (like his cigarillo) are emblematic of the corrupt sophistication
to which he has been exposed. The bottle over his right hip certainly
strengthens the visual line of instability rising up his back.
I do not know much about military
uniforms of the Jacksonian period, but I don't think that his beaver stovepipe hat is a
part of it. In fact, it is just one part of a panoply of items that are meant
to connote effeminacy or excessive dandiness. Its feather, in a luridly dyed
orange, stands in stark contrast to the "before" eagle feathers. Similarly,
his starkly blue uniform contrasts with the muted colors of his native costume;
but the gold stripe going up his leg again serves to follow that gentle curve
suggesting instability. The epaulets on his shoulders spring out from curves
running up his collar, but the effect is more "sproing", a little
bit like a man flying apart at the seams. His umbrella props him up, suggesting
an unexpected feebleness (as well as instability), and the symbolism of the
cigarillo is entirely unhonorific. The cigarillo and the umbrella each in its
own way comment on the peace pipe he carried eastward. The fan suggests daintiness
(in those days it was a woman's article) while echoing the tassles from the
"before" picture in its display of lace. The dainty kid gloves suggest
a loss of manliness, too (as if he were suddenly afraid of a tan).
Pigeon's Egg Head's artificial dandiness, instability,
and swagger are in masterful disjunction to the tepees that
lie in the background reminding us of his origins and the noble virtues from which he has strayed.
Here is Catlin:
Wi-jun-jon made his appearance
. . . in a full suit of regimentals! He had in Washington exchanged his beautifully
garnished and classic costume, for a full dress 'en militaire'. It was, perhaps,
presented to him by the President. It was broadcloth, of the finest blue,
trimmed with lace of gold; on his shoulders were mounted two immense epaulettes;
his neck was strangled with a shining black stock, and his feet were pinioned
in a pair of waterproof boots, with high heels, which made him 'step like
a yoked hog.'
On his head was a high-crowned beaver hat, with a broad silver lace band,
surmounted by a huge red feather, some two feet high; his coat collar stiff
with lace, came higher up than his ears, and over it flowed, down towards
his haunches—his long Indian locks, stuck up in rolls and plaits, with
A large silver medal was suspended from his neck by a blue ribbon— and
across his right shoulder passed a wide belt, supporting by his side a broad
On his hands he had drawn a pair of white kid gloves, and in them held, a
blue umbrella in one, and a large fan in the other. In this fashion was poor
Wijunjon metamorphosed, on his return from Washington; and, in this plight
was he strutting and whistling Yankee Doodle, about the deck of the steamer
that was wending its way up the mighty Missouri, and taking him to his native-land
again; where he was soon to light his pipe, and cheer the wigwam fire-side
with tales of novelty and wonder.
What does it mean?
Catlin is not so stupid as to be
making fun of Native Americans. Nor, I think, is he being so simple as to say
that Pigeon's Egg Head was just childishly overwhelmed by white culture. Nor again
do I think that he is making a knee-jerk condemnation of his own society. I
think partly he has in mind what I suggested above--that we destroy what we
love (here, a noble savage) by throwing ourselves at it. Do you have a favorite
vacation destination? How much has it been spoiled by being tarted up for the
tourists who then swamp it? We tend to clog the nicer parts of the world with
our bodies, this being our chief, most easily renewable resource. Washington
society "clogged" Pigeon's Egg Head with their culture, remaking him
in their image (as if, somehow, the noble savage could be so simply domesticated!).
But Catlin reveals his sensitivity to the complexities of the human condition when he reveals that
Pigeon's Egg Head thoroughly enjoyed his stay in Washington (why wouldn't the
darling of the party enjoy himself?) and had been a willing participant in his fall.
(It reminds one of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the arms of Andy Warhol and New York
But even worse, Catlin I think seeks
to show the fundamental discrepancies between Pigeon's Egg Head's society and
his own. It's not that the "primitive" couldn't handle the temptations
of the sophisticates: it's that each side saw what they wanted (or were able)
to and spoke past one another. The Washingtonians couldn't make a society figure
of him, nor, when he returned home, was any of what he brought back taken at
face value. His wife and companions parted out his fancy suit for more practical
purposes right away, and wouldn't accept what he told them. They thought he
was lying and a little mad, and his "lies" were so astounding that
they evolved a theory that he was under supernatural influence, and eventually
killed him for it. Catlin one final time:
Yes, Ba'tiste, it is a fact: thus
ended the days and the greatness and all the pride and hopes of WI JUN JON,
the 'Pigeon's Egg Head,'—a warrior and a brave of the valiant Assinneboins,
who travelled eight thousand miles to see the President, and all the great
cities of the civilized world; and who, for telling the truth, and nothing
but the truth, was, after he got home, disgraced and killed for a wizard.
. . .
URL for the image.
Campfire Stories with George Catlin. An encounter of two cultures:
Hooker, Richard. 1996. George Catlin: The Story of Wee-Jin-Jon: (http://www.wsu.edu/%7edee/NATION/CATLIN.HTM).
This excellent web page quotes extensively from Catlin's 1842 Notes and
Letters on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians and was my source for the Catlin quotes.