centerlogobigAAD logo


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.

DSC 0634John James Audubon (1785-1851), Washington's Sea Eagle, 1836-1838

DSC 0636Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), The Great Horseshoe Fall, Niagara

DSC 0639Alvan Fisher (1792-1863), A General View of the Falls of Niagara, circa 1820

DSC 0646Charles Bird King (1785-1862), Young Omahaw, Little Missouri and Pawnees

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." 

DSC 0650George Catlin (1796-1872), Guide to Portraits, top row, Nez Perce, Cheyenne, Kansas, Black Hawk, Missouri, Arikara

DSC 0649George Catlin (1796-1872), Distant View of the Mandan Village, 1832

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.

DSC 0651George Catlin (1796-1872), Fort Union, Mouth of the Yellowstone River, 2000 Miles above St. Louis 1832

DSC 0653George Catlin (1796-1872), Buffalo Chase, Mouth of the Yellowstone

DSC 0657George Catlin (1796-1872), Sioux Dog Feast, 1832-1837

DSC 0667George Catlin (1796-1872), Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington, 1839

DSC 0670George Catlin (1796-1872), Mah-to-he-ha, Old Bear, A Medicine Man

DSC 0675John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), Buffalo Hunt, Southwest Prairies, 1845

DSC 0676John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), Trial of Red Jacket

DSC 0690Asher B. Durand (1795-1886), Scene near Dover Plains, 1848

DSC 0700John F. Kensett (1816-1872), Along the Hudson, 1852

DSC 0702Robert S. Duncanson (1819-1872), Landscape with Rainbow, 1859

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 African American spirituals of the day, a rainbow indicated Judgement Day was at hand.

DSC 0703James Hamilton (1819-1872), Burning Oil Well at Night, near Rouseville, PA, 1861

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.

DSC 0704Frederic E. Church (1825-1900), Aura Borealis, 1865

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 . 

DSC 0707William Holbrook Beard (1824-1900), The Lost Balloon,

DSC 0708Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887), Lee Surrendering to Grant at Appomattox

DSC 0709Samuel Colman (1832-1920), Storm King on the Hudson, 1866

DSC 0720Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919), Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1885

DSC 0721Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Among the Sierra Nevada, 1868

DSC 0722Geiirge DeForest Brush (1855-1941), The Moose Chase, 1888

DSC 0771Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Seal Rocks, Farallon Islands, California

DSC 0820Childe Hassam (1859-1935), South Ledges, Appledore, Isle of Shoals

DSC 0822William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Shinnecock Hills, Southampton, Long Island, about 1895

 Smithsonian American Art Museum (free admission)

8th and F Streets, NW
Washington, DC 20004 

Click here for Map

About the Author



AAD REPORTS   Reports, news and opinion from