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George Catlin
Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington, 1837–39
Assiniboine/Nakoda
oil
29 x 24 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.


“On his way home from St. Louis to this place, a distance of 2000 miles, I travelled with this gentleman, on the steamer Yellow-Stone; and saw him step ashore (on a beautiful prairie, where several thousands of his people were encamped), with a complete suit en militaire, a colonel's uniform of blue, presented to him by the President of the United States, with a beaver hat and feather, with epaulettes of gold—with sash and belt, and broad sword; with high-heeled boots—with a keg of whiskey under his arm, and a blue umbrella in his hand” (Letters and Notes, vol. 1, p. 56; vol. 2, pl. 271–72).

Catlin first painted The Light in St. Louis, when the latter was en route to Washington in the fall of 1831, as an official guest of the Secretary of War. The two met again next spring on the upriver voyage of the Yellowstone, and Catlin watched The Light debark from the steamboat at Fort Union, where he was scarcely recognized by the members of his own tribe. Astonishment and disbelief gradually turned into fear and hostility as The Light recounted his travel experiences, and in time he was killed by a young Indian who could not comprehend what was probably an accurate description of a building in Washington (see Ewers, 1968).

As far as Catlin was concerned, the episode illustrated the tragic gulf between Indian culture and white civilization, and he traced the steps of The Light's downfall through many pages of Letters and Notes (vol. 1, pp. 55–57; vol. 2, pp. 194–200).

The subject is not included in the 1837 catalogue, but does appear in the Egyptian Hall catalogue of January 1840, indicating that it was painted in the interval. Catlin has finished both figures with unusual care, and The Light in uniform, whose swagger and vanity are an amusing change from a long line of stoic chiefs, is one of the artist's most successful characters.

The subject is repeated in plate 25 of Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio, first published in 1844; in plate 52 of the Gilcrease Souvenir album; and in cartoon 83.



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