|Charles Bird King — Amiskquew, Monominee|
Medium: Charcoal on paper
Dimensions: 10 x 6 1/2 inches
1830 (executed in Washington D. C.)
The remarkable American portrait painter Charles Bird King was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1785. As a child he studied painting under Samuel King, a famed Newport portraitist. At age fifteen, Charles Bird King ran away to New York City, where he worked in the studio of Edward Savage, a self-taught portrait painter and engraver. Between 1805 and 1812, King lived in London, where he studied under Benjamin West, an American historical painter who had become so popular in London that he was known as "the American Raphael." In London, King shared his studio with Thomas Sully, an English-born American Romantic painter famous for his portraits of wealthy and well-known Americans.
In 1816, King returned to the United States and settled in Washington, D.C, where he lived until his death in 1762. He became Washington, D.C.'s first and most well-known resident artist, and his renown and reputation grew as he painted portraits of the most highly influential notables and politicians in America, including Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.
Charles Bird King was undoubtedly one of the most important artists in the early years of America, rivaling even the legendary George Catlin because of his skill and talent as a portraitist.
Charles Bird King is best known, however, for his depictions of Native Americans. He was commissioned by the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Thomas L. McKenney, to paint the portraits of Native American dignitaries invited by the American government to Washington, D.C. The goal of these conferences with Native American chiefs was to convince the tribes to peacefully allow for white expansion throughout their territory. Between 1821 and 1842 King painted the portraits of over one hundred Native American leaders for over twenty different tribes, accurately representing their features and costumes. These paintings are admired for their faithfulness to the sitter's likeness, a quality which was considered extremely important in the pre-camera era. Known as the War Department Gallery of Indian Portraits, the collection was placed in the Smithsonian Institute in 1858. Unfortunately, the entire collection of portraits was destroyed by a fire in 1865.
Records of these paintings exist today, however, because King had painted replicas of his most important works for himself and for private collectors. Furthermore, before the tragic fire McKenney and Hall had published a three-volume set of full color lithographs in History of the Indian Tribes of North America, which has preserved King's portraits for posterity. In addition, original charcoal sketches have be uncovered, such as this preliminary drawing of Chief Amiskquew ("the Spoon") of the Algonquin tribe Menominee.