Commanding General, a boy (Wa-Ta-We-Buck-A-Na) is a superb example of George Catlin's depictions of Native American Indians that manifests the mid-nineteenth century fascination with the "noble savage." Probably painted in London in 1844, when Wa-Ta-We-Buck-A-Na and thirteen of his tribe members were traveling with Catlin and his Indian Gallery, here Catlin presents his subject starting calmly out at the viewer, splendidly adorned with the various accoutrements of his tribe.
Between 1830 and 1836, Catlin made several trips West to capture the various Native American tribes of the Plains and their customs on canvas. In 1839, he set sail for London with his Indian Gallery that he intended to tour across the European continent. This gallery consisted of "310 portraits of Native American Indians, 197 scenes of Indian life, a 25-foot-high Crow lodge, and crate loads of clothes, craftwork and curiosities" as well as "two grizzly bears, an assistant, and a nephew." (B.W. Dippie et al., George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2003, p. 64) Following a successful opening that garnered good press coverage--including a February 4, 1840 review in London Morning Post, which read, "The long room on the ground floor of the Egyptian Hall is covered from the roof to the floor, and nearly the floor itself, by some thousands of specimens, real as well as pictorial, of those interesting races, many of whom are now, alas! nearly extinguished, under the civilizing influences of fire-water, small-pox, and the exterminating policy of the Government of the United States, in which treachery has recently played a counterparty to the most gratuitous despotism." (George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, p. 66)-public interest diminished and Catlin struggled to maintain an audience as his finances dwindled.
Always seeking creative ways to re-engage the public, in 1841, he began to include live figures in his Gallery, Europeans in Native American guise, who toured with the paintings and objects throughout the United Kingdom for two years. Fortuitously, in 1843, the first of three groups of Native Americans, nine members of the Ojibwe tribe, approached Catlin and asked him to include them in his Gallery. This group was followed by fourteen Iowa, who traveled to London and Paris with Catlin in 1844 to 1845; and, finally, twelve Ojibwe, who visited Paris, London and Brussels with the artist in 1845 and 1846. Catlin depicted group drawings of the three contingents in his Catlin's Notes of Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe, with His North American Indian Collection of 1848 and painted portraits of all 35 of the traveling Native American Indians that he included in his Gallery, which by 1848 had grown to include 555 paintings. The inclusion of real Native American Indians revived interest in the Gallery, ushering in a period of success for Catlin.
The present work depicts Commanding General, a boy, also known as Wa-ta-we-buck-a-na, of the Iowa, who was part of the group that traveled with Catlin on the second leg. "Shepherded by G.H.C. Melody, a sympathetic American, the fourteen Iowa began their European travels in London in the summer of 1844, and soon after they replaced the Ojibwa as the performing troupe in Catlin's Indian Gallery. During their stay in the city, they were escorted to the usual attractions, had breakfast with Disraeli, danced in Vauxhill Gardens, and continued their performances at Egyptian Hall until late fall, when Catlin and Melody took them on a tour of the provinces, Edinburgh, and Dublin." (W.H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1979, p. 294)
Catlin knew some of the tribe members from his earlier trips West and they proved quite popular in Europe. On August 10, 1844, an article in the Illustrated London News wrote, "The appearance of the party in their romantic costume, and armed with tomahawks and other warlike weapons, is very picturesqueTheir feathers, generally speaking, are regular, and do not betray a savage or ferocious disposition; they have fine aquiline noses, and the contour of their faces is anything but repulsive; their chests are broad and manly; their carriage erect, and in their general mien and behavior more resembling civilised tribes than a rude and savage hordeMr. Catlin, during his travels among the Indians, and while sharing the hospitality of the Iowas, became acquainted with most of the males of this party, and vouches for the fact that the above group is chiefly composed of the most influential men of the tribe." (as quoted in (George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, p. 73)
When British interest again began to dwindle, Catlin took his Gallery and the Iowa to Paris in April of 1845. Here he, "engaged the Salle Valentino for several months. The French gave him a warm reception, and Louis Phillipe, who had been in exile in America from 1797 to 1799, invited the troupe to perform at the Tuileries before the royal family." (The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery, p. 294) According to William H. Truettner, in addition to the present work, Catlin was commissioned to paint a second portrait of Commanding General by Louis Philippe in 1845.
Lithograph, 1845, from drawing included in George Catlin's Notes of Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe with His North American Indian Collection, 1848.