CATLIN, George (1796-1872)
The War Dance
[Pl. 29] London: Chatto & WIndus, no date]. Lithograph, hand-coloured, by John McGahey, printed by Day & Haghe. Wove paper. Image size: 11 x 16 1/2 inches. Sheet size: 16 x 22 1/4 inches. American style gold leaf, linen mat, gold bevel. 24 3/4 x 30 1/4 inches.
A fine image from Catlin's 'North American Indian Portfolio', one of the most important accounts of Native American life.
The War Dance, or 'dance of the braves', "is peculiarly beautiful... At intervals they stop, and one of them steps into the ring, and voiciferates[sic] as loud as possible, with the most significant gesticulations, the feats of bravery which he has performed during his life.... and at the same time carries his body through all the motions and gestures, which have been used during these scenes when they were transacted. At the end of his boasting, all assent to the truth of his story... and the dance begins again"
This is one of the six rare unnumbered plates, whose existence remained something of a mystery until recently, when research uncovered the true history of the production of the North American Indian Portfolio . When Catlin first produced his work in 1844, he evidently intended his 25 plate folio to be the first of four volumes, and had carried work forward to the point of having produced extra lithographic stones toward the next volume. However, the collapse of his finances ended this scheme, and the publisher Henry Bohn took over the copyright of the Portfolio, producing 25 plate versions until he sold the copyright to the publishers Chatto & Windus in the early 1870s. Chatto & Windus decided to enhance their reissue of the Portfolio by printing the six extra plates, from stones which had existed unused for over thirty years. This is documented in their archives, now in the Reading University Library in England. Of the 140 sets located in the unpublished census, only about a quarter are of the 31 plate issue. Thus, these six plates are four times scarcer than the other Portfolio plates.
Catlin summarized the Native American as "an honest, hospitable, faithful, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless, -- yet honourable, contemplative and religious being." In a famous passage from the preface of his North American Indian Portfolio , Catlin describes how the sight of several tribal chiefs in Philadelphia led to his resolution to record their way of life: "the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy of the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian". He saw no future for either their way of life or their very existence, and with these thoughts always at the back of his mind he worked, against time, setting himself a truly punishing schedule, to record what he saw. From 1832 to 1837 he spent the summer months sketching the tribes and then finished his pictures in oils during the winter. The record he left is unique, both in its breadth and also in the sympathetic understanding that his images constantly demonstrate. A selection of the greatest of images from this record were published in the North American Indian Portfolio in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible. The present image is one of the results of this publishing venture and is both a work of art of the highest quality and a fitting memorial to a vanished way of life.