Charles Bird King (American, 1785–1862),
Portrait of Shaumonekusse (L’Ietan), an Oto Half-Chief
oil on canvas, 29½ x 24½ inches, 74.93 x 62.23 cm
Gift of M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1978.267
Charles Bird King produced an important series of portraits in the 1820s for Thomas L. McKenney, then head of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Among the earliest of their kind, these works formed the basis of the government’s National Indian Portrait Gallery, which was housed in the offices of the War Department before being transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where a fire destroyed most of them in 1865. Fortunately, lithographic versions of the portraits appeared in A History of the Indian Tribes of North America issued by McKenney and James Hall at Philadelphia between the years 1836 and 1844.
A native of Newport, Rhode Island, King studied art in New York City and in London before settling in Philadelphia in 1812 to pursue a career in portraiture. In 1816 he moved to the nation’s capital and established a permanent studio, achieving a modest reputation painting the likenesses of leading political figures of his day. From about 1821 through the early 1830s, King is said to have painted over one hundred portraits of members of more than twenty Indian tribes whose delegates visited Washington on treaty business. Joslyn’s portrait of Shaumonekusse, or L’Ietan (Prairie Wolf), an Oto half-chief, or sub-chief, from the wilds of Missouri, is one of these. Here, in addition to silver armbands, presidential peace medals, and a grizzly claw necklace, the warrior delegate is painted wearing a headdress ornamented with shaved bison horns topped with horsehair. The portrait was reproduced in a hand-colored lithograph in McKenney and Hall’s History.