Thomas McKenney served as the United States Superintendent of Indian Trade in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. and later as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). He initiated the government’s commissioning of portraits. Like many others at the time, he believed that the indigenous American people were nearing extinction; and he sought ways to preserve their history and culture.
McKenney first tried to collect artifacts from various indigenous tribes, then thought of having portraits painted for the government. About this time, he met Charles Bird King, whose talent he appreciated. King painted the subjects in his own studio, as McKenney easily obtained the consent for the portraits from Native American leaders coming to Washington to do business with the US through his new department.
- King’s portraits gained widespread publicity beyond Washington, as McKenney broadened his project by publishing a book on Native Americans.
In 1829 McKenney began what would become many years’ worth of work on the three-volume work, The History of the Indian Tribes of North America. The project featured the many portraits of Native Americans, containing mostly King’s lithograph forms, accompanied by an essay by the author James Hall.
After the administration changed and McKenney left, the agency donated the Native American portrait collection to the National Institute, but shoddy care and displays kept them from the public eye. When the National Institute deteriorated, it gave its works in 1858 to the Smithsonian Institute.
King’s portraits were displayed among similar paintings by the New York artist John Mix Stanley in a gallery containing a total of 291 paintings of Native American portraits and scenes.
- On January 24, 1865, a fire destroyed the paintings in this gallery, though a few of King’s works were saved before the flames spread.
- Representations of many of the lost paintings have been found in McKenney’s lithograph collection that supported the book (as featured above).
If you want a greater ‘King hit’ see bio info for Charles Bird King.