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‘The Indian Portrait Gallery of Thomas L. McKenney’

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OMAHA, Neb. – Thomas L. McKenney (1785–1859), the nation’s first superintendent of Indian affairs (1824–1830), was an avid admirer of the Indian cultures of North America.

He was instrumental in bringing Indian delegations to Washington, D.C., in an effort to promote Indian welfare. He was deeply concerned about what he perceived to be the destruction of Indian tribal cultures as white settlement advanced and the government increasingly promoted Indian removal policies. He therefore conceived a plan to preserve Native histories by gathering artifacts, texts and images for a War Department archive and a gallery of Indian portraits.

Drawn from the Joslyn Art Museum’s own collection of lithographed Indian portraits published by McKenney, a gift of Suzanne and Walter Scott, the exhibition “The Indian Portrait Gallery of Thomas L. McKenney” showcases a selection of hand-colored lithographs of Indian warriors, chiefs, statesmen, shamans and women that originally constituted the illustrations for McKenney’s grand publishing venture, “The History of the Indian Tribes of North America.”

Among the tribes represented in the exhibition are the Omaha, Pawnee, Winnebago, Creek, Sioux, Sac, Iowa, Meskwaki, Seneca, Ojibwa, Osage and Oto.

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When Indian delegations visited Washington D.C., in the 1820s and 1830s to meet with government officials, McKenney regularly took individual delegates to the studio of artist Charles Bird King to have their portraits painted. Between 1822 and 1837, McKenney was able to amass 147 portraits as well as Indian artifacts that he placed in an exhibition housed in the War Department.

In 1858, McKenney’s Indian Portrait Gallery was moved to the Smithsonian Institution, where in 1865 a fire swept the building and destroyed all but four of the portraits in the collection. Fortunately, the portrait record was not totally lost as King had made duplicates of some of his Indian portraits, and more importantly, McKenney hired portrait painter Henry Inman to copy King’s portraits for a project he conceived in 1829.

McKenney’s plan was to produce a “History of the Indian Tribes of North America” illustrated by gorgeous hand-colored prints based upon the painted portraits, with historical and biographical text by the Cincinnati lawyer James Hall. The realization of McKenney’s immense project spanned 15 years from 1829 to 1844 and resulted in the publication of a magnificent three-volume portfolio containing 127 portraits, one of the most important American publications ever produced.

In addition to more than 60 hand-colored lithographs from the McKenney-Hall publication, the exhibition also includes Joslyn’s superb Charles Bird King oil portrait of Shaumonekusse, three Indian portrait paintings copied by Inman from the King originals (loaned by Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe) and used as the models for the lithographs, a peace medal typical of those presented by the federal government to Indians visiting Washington, and Joslyn’s three-volume set of the “History of the Indian Tribes of North America,” formerly in the collection of King Leopold II of Belgium.

The Joslyn Art Museum is located at 2200 Dodge St. in Omaha. For more information call (402) 342-3300. Museum admission is $7 for adults; $5 for senior citizens (over 62) and college students with ID; $4 for ages 5-17; free for children four and younger and Joslyn members. The general public is admitted free on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Group rates are available for 10 or more with advance reservations.