Term Paper: Paintbrush &amp Peacepipe: The Story

Pages: 8 (2793 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Native Americans  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] McCracken's purpose is to thoroughly document the life of a man and artist whose paintings and writings he believes are essential in recording and preserving our knowledge of Native Americans. His annotated and referenced work is much more formal and scholarly in tone than that of Rockwell.

In his detailed study, McCracken places much more emphasis on Catlin's writing than does Rockwell. In his lengthy studious work McCracken has space to quote at length from Catlin's journals and published written work to establish a sense of his impressive descriptive style. "I have viewed man in the innocent simplicity of nature," says Catlin in Last Rambles Amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, published in 1868, in the full enjoyment of the luxuries which God has bestowed upon him... happier than kings and princes can be, with his pipe and little ones about him... I have seen him... retreat like the frightened deer... I have seen him shrinking from the soil and haunts of his boyhood... I have seen him set fire to his wigwam and smooth over the graves of his fathers... (McCracken 15)

McCracken structures George Catlin and the Old Frontier on a chronological basis, presenting the progression of Catlin's travels and the paintings he produced as he visited each tribe, including anecdotes from Catlin's writings to supplement the background of each painting. The chapters progress from his early portraits of Sam Houston, Dewitt Clinton, Oliver Wolcott and the Virginia Constitutional Convention to his first visit to St. Louis in 1830.

While Rockwell presents only a romantic picture of the painter of American Indians, McCracken attempts to give an honest view of how Catlin was perceived by those who viewed his art:

The art of George Catlin has for generations been the subject of as strong a controversy as his feelings about the Indians. His paintings have been enthusiastically praised and severely condemned. To some critics his work has seemed romantic; to others it is that of a realist while still others call it American primitive. The reason for the confusion is that there are many who lose track of the fact that documentary art is an area of art in itself. They overlook the fundamental idea of those artists who devoted their talents to preserving for posterity, in as truthful and meticulous a manner as they could, the important scenes and likenesses of the era and field in which they worked. George Catlin's field was the primitive Indians as they were in their original state, and the truthfulness and accuracy of these portrayals is not only their most important reason for being, but it far outweighs any of their other qualities (McCracken 16).

He concludes this summation with a quote from Joseph Henry, Director of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1873 said about Catlin's paintings: "They will grow in importance with advancing years, and when the race of which they are the representation shall have entirely disappeared, their value will be inestimable" (McCracken 16).

One of the most poignant reproductions in the McCracken book, is the double portrait of Wi-Jun-Jon, The Pigeon's Egg Head, Going and Returning from Washington. This Assiniboin chief who spent a year in Washington, D.C. And was completely corrupted by white civilization in that brief time is also present in the Rockwell book. However, the dual portrait as presented by McCracken and the more complete story of how his own people found him "unintelligible and beyond comprehension" after his return make his murder more understandable. Due to his boasting his people thought he deserved to be killed as "the most preposterous liar and no-good individual that the tribe had ever known" (McCracken 63) This detailed version of the story which includes excessive alcohol consumption would not have been appropriate for Rockwell's children's biography.

In his presentation of Catlin's life and work McCracken includes several other aspects of Indian life witnessed and chronicled by Catlin that were not suitable for discussion in Rockwell's children's book. Catlin made pictures of the religious torture rituals of the Mandans. These were "ceremonial procedures which were not witnessed in their uninhibited entirety by any known white man, either before or afterward" (McCracken 83). This was an extremely painful ceremony in which bodies were suspended by cords through various parts:

While the blood was streaming down their limbs, the attendants hung upon the other skewers the young man's shield, bow and quiver...and...the heavy skull of a buffalo was attached to each arm and leg...their heads sunk forward on their breast... In a frightful condition (McCracken 107).

These and other "sadistic religious rites" detailed in McCracken, along with polygamy and the buying and selling of women would not have been appropriate subjects for inclusion by Rockwell. Rockwell leaves out the more gruesome details of scalp taking and ritual torture which McCracken includes in detail, being in general, less romantic and more realistic in approach than Rockwell.

The vast scope of the artwork included in McCracken's book, and it's elegant presentation in large well displayed reproductions, so many in color, lifts this books to the heights of an appealing art book. McCracken's compelling writing style completes the artfulness of the book to truly allow it to offer a superior presentation. For example consider the opening of Chapter 16, "Land of the Wild Comanches":

Day after Day Colonel Dodge led his dragoons westward. For the time being there was an abundance of buffalo for meant and enough men able to tend the sick and keep the column moving on its way. The Indian scouts who roamed ahead began signaling back to interpreters who rode beside the commander that they were finding an increasing number of fresh tracks of Indian horsemen (McCracken 148).

McCracken follows his own artful prose with Catlin's written description of the sighting of Comanche warriors: "From the glistening of the blades of their lances, which were blazing as they turned in the sun, it was at first thought they were Mexican cavalry..." Describing the Indian who rode out alone to meet Colonel Dodge, "carrying a piece of white buffalo skin on the point of his long lance," Catlin says in his journal:

This moment was the commencement of one of the most thrilling and beautiful scenes I ever witnessed. On a beautiful and gently rolling prairie, he was reining and spurring his maddened horse, and gradually approaching us by tacking to the right and the left... He at length came prancing and leaping along till he met the flag of the regiment when he leaned his spear for a moment against it, looking the bearer full in the face, then he wheeled his horse and dashed up to Col. Dodge. His hand was extended which was instantly grasped and shaken (McCracken 147-148).

Catlin's journal entries are interspersed with drawings of Comanche warriors, their capture of wild horses, their village, and their feats of horsemanship.

Rockwell in Paintbrush and Peacepipe is telling a story to intrigue children. Her tale is of a man who during his lifetime worked ceaselessly on behalf of Native Americans and whose story seems to be one of failure. McCracken describes in great detail the life of a respected artist and writer who after his death became honored and renowned. Both books tell essentially the same story of a man and artist who sought to save the Native American culture and elicit respect for it's peoples. Both see Catlin's work is a valuable source of historical information.

Works Cited

McCracken, Harold. George Catlin… [END OF PREVIEW]

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