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George Catlin
Eagle Dance, Choctaw, 1835–37
Choctaw
oil
19 1/2 x 27 1/2 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.


“The Eagle Dance, a very pretty scene … [was] got up by their young men, in honour of that bird, for which they seem to have a religious regard. This picturesque dance was given by twelve or sixteen men, whose bodies were chiefly naked and painted white, with white clay, and each one holding in his hand the tail of the eagle, while his head was also decorated with an eagle's quill. Spears were stuck in the ground, around which the dance was performed by four men at a time, who had simultaneously, at the beat of the drum, jumped up from the ground where they. had all sat in rows of four, one row immediately behind the other, and ready to take the place of the first four when they left the ground fatigued.…

“In this dance, the steps or rather jumps, were different from anything I had ever witnessed before, as the dancers were squat down, with their bodies almost to the ground, in a severe and most difficult posture, as will have been seen in the drawing” (Letters and Notes, vol. 2, pp. 120–27, pl. 227).

Sketched near Fort Gibson in 1834. The scene is repeated in cartoon 161.

In the Smithsonian Catlin collection is a Sauk and Fox or Iowa dance scene in which each Indian holds an eagle feather and wears another in his headdress. Their bodies are not painted white, however, nor is the position and arrangement of the dancers at all similar to number [this scene].

The subject was probably taken from the Eagle Dance performed by the Iowa troupe in London in 1844, and Catlin then filled in an appropriate background (see Travels in Europe). Presumably the painting was destined for Louis Philippe, as an Eagle Dance appears on the list of fifteen paintings that the king commissioned from Catlin in 1845. Although the size of these is given as 30 by 36 inches, the frames may have been included in the dimensions. Even the present size is noticeably larger than the average dance or hunting scene in the 1848 catalogue, and the elaborate detail of the painting, which is much like the execution of the LaSalle series, would indicate that Catlin made a considerable effort to please the king. Except for a version of number 428, no Catlin paintings remain in the French national collections. This may mean that the group of fifteen were retrieved by the artist, along with the LaSalle series, after Louis was deposed in February 1848.



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