Contributed by Ryan Wheeler
Three distinctive oil paintings attributed to artist Henry Inman (1801-1846) are among the collections of the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. These paintings are part of a larger group of portraits created by Inman to produce the hand colored lithographs that appeared in the three volumes of The History of Indian Tribes of North America (1836-1844) by Thomas McKenney and James Hall. Specifically, the Peabody paintings depict Petalesharo (90.181.10), Ki-On-Twog-Ky, or Cornplanter (90.181.11), and Mohongo and Child (90.181.12). The source material for the Inman paintings were original works created principally in Washington DC by portrait painter Charles Bird King (1785-1862). The bulk of the King originals were destroyed in a fire in 1865.
Today, original editions of the McKenney and Hall volumes and individual lithographs are valuable and highly sought after, but at the time the project was not a financial success. Many of the Inman portraits (at least 100 or more) were given to the Tilestone and Hollingsworth Paper Company of Milton, MA, who had supplied paper for the book project. The families of Edmund Tilestone and Amor Hollingsworth made a gift of the paintings to the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in 1882. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Harvard museum sold many of the Inman paintings in their collection, ultimately retaining twenty-five.
Comparison with the list of Harvard’s original holdings indicates that the three Inman portraits at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology did not come from that source. The frames also are quite different; the paintings at Harvard have simple wood frames, with descriptive plaques affixed, while those at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology have ornate frames with gold leaf. In correspondence on file, former museum director Richard S. MacNeish told then director James Bradley that the paintings were part of the original gift from Robert S. Peabody. Stebbins and Renn (2014:288) report that Harvard received 107 of the Inman paintings from the Tilestone and Hollingsworth heirs, but that Inman had originally painted 117 and the whereabouts of the remaining paintings is unclear. It is possible that Robert S. Peabody acquired the three paintings when they were exhibited in Philadelphia.
The paintings reflect the classical style of portraits painted in the nineteenth century, and do not attempt to portray people in an imagined “primitive” setting as the photographs of Edward S. Curtis do at the end of the century. Clothing and personal items reflect the blend of traditional and Anglo-European attire resulting from varying levels of cultural assimilation. History and Social Sciences instructor Marcelle Doheny uses the paintings in her senior elective, Race and Identity in Indian Country, and they were part of an independent student project in 2015-2016 that examined Anglo-European portrayals of Native Americans.
The biographical notes that accompany the McKenney and Hall publication provide additional details about the lives of these individuals, at least as documented by the editors. Mohongo’s (1809-1836) story is particularly striking, as she was one of a group of Osage persuaded to make a European tour in 1827. While in Europe, she gave birth to twins, but only one survived. The tour organizer, who had brought the Osage to Europe to perform as a Wild West Show, was arrested for debt in Paris, leaving the rest of the party to fend for themselves. Ultimately, the Marquis de Lafayette learned of the situation and arranged for passage back to North America. During the sea voyage more members of the party perished, but Mohongo and her child survived, ultimately arriving in Norfolk, Virginia, where Charles Bird King painted their portrait. We believe that the peace medal worn by Mohongo depicts Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time. Mohongo and her child made their way back to Missouri. The book, An Osage Journey to Europe, 1827-1830: Three French Accounts edited and translated by William Least Heat-Moon and James K. Wallace, documents the episode.
Several exhibits—for example, the Indian Gallery of Henry Inman, which toured museums from 2006 to 2012—have assembled small collections of the extant Inman paintings, but the examples at the Peabody have never been included, likely because curators and art historians have not known about them.
Christie’s East. 1981. American Paintings and Watercolors of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries (auction catalog). New York.
Ewers, John C. 1954. Charles Bird King, painter of Indian visitors to the nation’s capital. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1953. Pp. 463-473. Publication 4149. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
Gerald Peters Gallery. 2008. Henry Inman, Twenty-four Indian Portraits (catalog). New York.
Gerdts, William H., and Carrie Rebora. 1987. The Art of Henry Inman. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr., and Melissa Renn. 2014. American Paintings at Harvard, Volume 1: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826. Harvard Art Museums and Yale University Press, New Haven.
Viola, Herman J. 1976. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. Smithsonian Institution Press and Doubleday & Company, New York.
Viola, Herman J. 1983. Indians of North America: Paintings by Henry Inman from the D. Harold Byrd, Jr. Collection. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY.