"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ah-jon-jon, The Light

 This  1837-39 painting called "Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning from Washington" by George Catlin hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, DC.
"Catlin misheard this warrior's name Ah-jon­jon, which means "The Light," as Wi-jun-jon, which translates as "Pigeon's Egg Head." The Light was an Assiniboine leader who was invited in 1831 to represent his tribe in Washington. During a winter in the nation's capital, he traded his native dress for European clothes and customs. In Catlin's before-and-after portrait, the once proud warrior, with a liquor bottle in his pocket, swaggers in high-heeled boots and carries a fan and umbrella. For Catlin, this transformation illustrated the tragic gulf between Native American and white cultures." -- Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Henry Luce Center labels this painting this way:
 "George Catlin first met the Light in St. Louis in December 1831, when the Assiniboine warrior was en route to Washington to meet President Andrew Jackson and tour the city. Catlin recalled that the warrior appeared for his portrait sitting 'plumed and tinted . . . [and] dressed in his native costume, which was classic and exceedingly beautiful.' Wi-jún-jon returned home to the northern Plains eighteen months later a decidedly different man---dressed apparently in a 'general’s' uniform and sharing what to his fellow tribesmen were astonishing accounts of the white man’s cities. They eventually rejected his stories as 'ingenious fabrication of novelty and wonder,' and his persistence in telling such 'lies' eventually led to his murder. (Catlin, Letters and Notes, vol. 2, no. 55, 1841; reprint 1973)"
There are several versions of this image. The 1861/69 Catlin painting below entitled "Assinneboine Chief before and after Civilization" hangs in the National Gallery of Art. It shows the Assinneboine Chief standing in front of the Capitol in the 'before' picture and carrying a sword in the 'after' picture. 

Notice, too, that the flashy scarlet feather does not appear in this version.

 And in this Currier & Ives print (Catlin del.) from the Library of Congress Wi-jún-jon wears face paint, before and after.

Wi-Jun-Jon, The Pigeon's Egg Head

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