Smithsonian Museum of American Art owns one of the largest permanent collections of American art anywhere, this collection has a concentration of early works dating to Indian treaties and the encounters with the natives as the United States went west in the 19th century, the collection in this area can only be called electrifying, or simply put best, Wild.
After the Lewis and Clark trip, also known as the Corps of Discovery 1803-1807, the leaders were instructed to give various Indian Chiefs a token of affection from the President and to show that object as a legal free pass back to Washington to sign a treaty recognizing the authority of the United States and setting the terms of relations between the two peoples. What was a trickle of occasional Indians back east by the 1820's became a torrent of native sight seerers visiting DC. Both Charles Bird King and George Catlin captured these ambassadorial likenesses on canvas. Those paintings produced depicted a fleeting and highly unusual era of diplomacy, one which came to an end via disease and the inevitablel encroachment on native lands by European settlers headed west, these formed the core of the Smithsonian's collection when the museum was founded in 1846 as a bequest from an Englishman who left his estate to a nephew then the ultimate beneficiary, "the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men."
Catlin had for a guide coming up river in 1832 nobody lese than General William Clark (Meriweather Lewis died by suicide some twenty years prior), as the two retraced the Missouri River ascent of the vital 1804 expedition. The Mandan village seen in the distance is where the Corps of Discovery weathered the brutal winter of 1804-1805. The Mandan's themselves soon caught smallpox and died, vanishing by the 1840's from the face of the earth. The ghostly remains of their village on the cliff above the wandering Missouri River may be seen on google maps via satellite photography.
A rare African American member of the Hudson River School this artist's seemingly innocuous landscapes are riddled with clues towards the plight of slavery in the United States and talismans associated with the Underground Railroad. This work is dated 1859, the same year as the ill fated raid by John Brown on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, which was designed to arm an uprising of slaves. It didn't work, Brown got hung, but the polarization of the country brought the great conflict into being a short two years later. According to the negro spirituals of the day, a rainbow indicated Judgement Day was at hand.
An early casualty to the Civil War was the use of whale oil to light eastern cities. A few Confederate commerce raiders escaped blockade by the Union Navy and wrecked havoc on the New England whaling fleet. As a substitute the much more dangerous naptha (gas) often found near coal mines in Pennesylvania and Ohio was to be used a substitute, this created the modern oil industry. With the nearest deepwater port being Cleveland, Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie for refining this dangerous liquid into something more stable for shipment, Cleveland native John D, Rockefeller set about setting up industrial standards for quality and when confronted by monopoly tactics employed by railroads to stifle this new alternative, JDR created pioneered the use of pipelines, specifically to avoid the catastrophe seen above.
John Brown and Robert Duncanson were not the only people who saw signs and lights in the sky as omens of things to come. In the summer of 1859 while Frederic Church was coming back from a trip to the north where he was inspited to paint his largest canvas of all, Icebergs of the North, in late August of 1859, the largest solar flare known to date occurred. Now named the Carrington Event, this astral event caused lights in the sky to be seen as far south as Havana Cuba. Many thought it an inspiration from above, that great or dire events were at hand. Perhaps in a self fulfilling prophesy the Civil War started less than two years later. Many Hudson River School artists painted the unusual sunsets of 1859. Church remained preoccupied with painting images of shooting stars, moons and other nighttime phenominon until the end of the war when he produced this, his omega, the last great Aura painting on canvas, a related work hangs in the artist's home Olana, in Hudson, NY .
Smithsonian American Art Museum (free admission)
8th and F Streets, NW
Washington, DC 20004