Mounted on a fine horse, the sitter is turned on his saddle, looking back, in a position that displays his distinctive Araucanian costume. Among Rugendas' drawings there are at least four studies depicting Indians on horseback; the sheet he worked out for this oil painting (see Diener, 1997; cat. nr. AE-D-55, illustrated p.286) has the inscription: 'Manilu Cacique Peguenche'. The painter named his model and identified him as a chief of the Pehuenche, one of the Araucanian tribes who lived mostly in the inner Andean valleys and at the east side of the mountains (for a discussion of the Araucanians see Helmut Schindler, in Diener (ed.) 1992, p.76).
The drawing belongs to the works the artist executed in Chile between November 1835 and March 1836, when he travelled to the Biobío valley -- the southern frontier of the territory the Chilean government effectively controlled at this time. There Rugendas was able to make contact with those Indians who used to visit the Chilean border cities to trade. We can assume that it was there that this Indian called Manilu sat for him, allowing the traveller-artist to take his portrait.
As was the case with several sketches taken during this trip, Rugendas worked the sketch up in oil later, probably during 1837 in his Chilean atelier. He introduced some changes in the painted version: he increased the sense of space, putting the horse not parallel to the picture plane -- as he did for the drawing -- but in a diagonal orientation, looking into the picture, thereby adding a dynamic turning movement to the Indian's figure. The landscape remains unidentifiable, but he defines some details of the vegetation, and emphasises the dramatic cloudy atmosphere, in a way he had already done in his Mexican études d'après nature (see P. Diener, Rugendas. 1802-1858. Catalogo de la obra, Augsburg, 1997; H. Schindler, 'Rugendas y los araucanos: apuntes etnograficos' in P. Diener, Rugendas. América de punta a cabo. Rugendas y la Araucanía, exhibition catalogue, Santiago de Chile, Biblioteca Nacional, 1992, p.71-106).
We are grateful to Dr Pablo Diener for his help in preparing the above catalogue entry and for confirming the attribution on the basis of a photograph.