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Chiefs and Leaders
Richard Murray

The Imperial Mode

George Catlin ventured west carrying his sketchbooks, canvasses, and artist's kit bag full of brushes and pigments. Along with the tools of his trade, he also carried Western European conventions in the portrayal of chiefs and leaders. Since the Roman Empire, leaders were portrayed in what is called the "Imperial Mode." Like the portrait of Caesar Augustus [Augustus of Prima Porta, 15 A.D., Vatican Museums, Rome], leaders were often portrayed standing, facing front, holding a staff signifying power and leadership. Emblems of authority were arrayed on their clothing or armor. Caesar's breastplate has figures symbolizing the provinces under Roman control.

When Napoleon was portrayed seated on his imperial throne [Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, 1806, Musée de L' Armée, Paris], the artist Ingres painted him in the "Imperial Mode" of portraiture. Napoleon's staffs, his medals, his reddish-purple robe — that's the traditional imperial color — precious furs, and imperial eagles carved into his throne and woven into the carpet are all symbols of his rule.

Even George Washington was portrayed in this "Imperial Mode" when the American artist Gilbert Stuart painted him with outstretched hand offering peace, but with his other hand firmly on his sword [Gilbert Stuart, George Washington (Lansdowne portrait)], 1796, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution]. The American eagle, heir to the imperial eagle, is carved into the desk on which are undoubtedly the founding documents of our republic.

Four Bears in Full Regalia

Indians had little tradition of individual painted portraits. Their idea of likeness and a person's importance being described in an oral tradition. But they recognized how Catlin used the leader's stance, the power shirts, head dresses, and symbols to make them distinct, even if they didn't know of the "Imperial Mode" of portraiture.

When Catlin painted the Mandan second chief Four Bears at Fort Clark in 1832, he arranged him standing in the "Imperial Mode," in full regalia emphasizing Four his staff of authority, which was a spear hung with hair locks from his enemies, a full feather bonnet, and a robe painted with Four Bears' personal symbols of power and achievement. For the American and Western European viewers of Catlin's Indian Gallery, this device immediately transformed what some called a "savage" into a person of great authority requiring respect.

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