Living near Monticello pretty much eliminates any opportunity to feign ignorance when it comes to Jefferson’s life or various pursuits. Either by proximity or osmosis one picks up tidbits and timelines without much more than a cursory awareness.
One of the more notable accomplishments began when, as president, he paid $15 million to cash-hungry France for the Louisiana territory in 1803, doubling the land mass of the United States. To investigate what that tidy sum had bought him, he dispatched hometown boys Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
This ambitious undertaking has become the stuff of legend. To celebrate the 200-year anniversary of their cross country exploration, the University of Virginia Art Museum has assembled some paintings and artifacts to give a taste of the journey and its consequences for the American Indians.
Solely taken on artistic merit, there’s not one piece in here that couldn’t elicit an audible gasp. The one modern contribution by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith (b.1940), with its cherries-in-the-snow red paint slashed across a newspaper maligning Native American culture, quickly admonishes anyone willing only to see the glory days of pioneering Lewis and Clark.
Works by American ethnographer George Catlin (1796-1872) and Swiss painter Karl Bodner (1809-1893) constitute the bulk of the show, with their unromantic depictions of life as an Indian. Details are rendered as clearly as the individual beads on the soles of the moccasins. These prints remain the closest glimpse we have of what Native American life was like before the westward expansion. Small footnotes are placed around the exhibition describing historical references and journal entries from Lewis and Clark.
One aside notes, “Catlin and Bodner knew the culture was quickly changing and imperiled by the intrusion of alien western culture. Catlin saw it all as romantic, pure people degraded by white culture. Bodner saw it as an inferior race that had the capacity to evolve.” It’s hard to continue to look at the prints quite so innocently after reading that.
The beadwork is impressive, covering everything from tobacco bags to papooses to buckskins. Tiny beads, 100 per square inch, with not a thread visible, are dizzying up close, and in my experience have no modern equivalent. But then, these were made 100-years later, after the indigenous tribes had been removed by the government from ancestral lands onto reservations. Free from following the herds, these nomadic people became sedentary, and with more time on their hands, lavishly decorated whatever was available.
In 1803 Jefferson wrote, “In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will permit.” This exhibit clearly shows that Lewis and Clark did exactly that. Without their friendly introductions, there might not have been any prints or artifacts to muse over.
Honoring the Legacy of Lewis and Clark: Native American Art and the American West will be at the University of Virginia Art Museum through Sunday, March 2. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 1 to 5pm. For more information call 924-3592.