‘Framing First Contact From Catlin to Russell’ review

‘framing First Contact From Catlin To Russell’ By Kate Elliott University Of Oklahoma Press Norman, Oklahoma Review By Wally Mclane
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
“Framing First Contact From Catlin to Russell” was written by Kate Elliott.

“Framing First Contact From Catlin to Russell” was written by Kate Elliott.

The book tells about the early paintings of American history, which, though elaborate, were done by artists portraying the European side of the story. This was enhanced due to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” giving the European powers rights of ownership to lands they explored. The Pope at the time “gave Spain, as a kingdom of worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men, the right of conquest over any lands not ‘in the actual possession of any Christian King or Prince.’” Therefore the indigenous people, who were already here, had no say. (Makes me wonder what if our explorations on other planets were to find life?)

Be it the “Doctrine of Discovery,” or some other preconceived notion, the early painters of the “First Contact” just gave greater credence to what/who they knew, the Anglo-Europeans, and relegated the Native Americans to the painter’s thoughts/notions without getting to know them.

One of the first, if not the first, painter to treat his subjects on more of a level playing field was Charlie Russell. But what did Charlie Russell know. “The heroes of Russell’s canvas are quite simply the wrong people.” (Calm down! Please note this is in quotes, taken from the book, and is definitely contradictory to the reviewer’s beliefs.)

As with any commissioned piece, the artist is obligated to satisfy the patron. Those people in the 1830’s and 40’s were new to the Native Americans and were fearful or apprehensive of the “new contacts.”

Even paintings that were supposed to reflect “First Contact” but were painted during the 1860’s reflected ulterior motives. Even the historical paintings commissioned by Congress in the early 1860’s apparently reflected a reconstructed union moving forward.

On the other hand, Charlie Russell’s interpretation of “First Contact” in Lewis and Clark Meeting Indians at Ross’ Hole does not diminish the value of the Native Americans, but in fact, gives credence to their culture and ways.

In the late 19th century the theme was still that “history begins with white discovery and settlement of the land.”

When the Montana legislature passed the bill to enlarge the capitol by adding two sides, Governor Norris was thinking of how Minnesota did their paintings, ignoring the Native American aspect. Fortunately, the legislature had considerable members from Governor Toole’s administration and Charlie Russell’s favoritism. They did not want the Native Americans to be forgotten. Enter Lewis and Clark Meeting ...

With “First Contact” paintings there is some significance as to whether the subjects are facing East or West. When facing East, the European is perceived as the “encroacher” and the Native American as the “possessor.”


The Minnesota legislature was called to task in their capitol in 2016 for their murals being “racially charged and historically inaccurate.”



Have you attended a ball game or track meet this spring?

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