Museum Minute: A Hidden Figure

Feb 11, 2020

George Catlin (1796-1872). Mandan Village, Mandan-View of the Missouri above the village whilst the women and children are bathing, ca. 1855-1870. Oil on paperboard, 18.5 x 24.75 inches. Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Gift of Paul Mellon. 25.86
Credit Whitney Western Art Museum

Museum curators often receive public inquiries, and sometimes an outside person can be very helpful to gaining better insight on a painting or object in the museum. For Karen McWhorter, the curator of the Whitney Western Art Museum, a call from a professor made her look at George Catlin’s “Mandan-View of the Missouri Above the Village Whilst the Women and Children are Bathing.”

“He said, ‘I have a cartoon which was an illustration done at the time. [The illustration] was painted [and] portrays a figure in the foreground, and your painting doesn't seem to have the same figure’,” recalled McWhorter.

She said she went to look at the painting and looked closely.

“What I noticed is there is, in fact, a figure in the foreground of this painting, but the figure has been overpainted with brush and grass so it's almost completely obscured unless you are looking for it,” said McWhorter.

After studying the figure in the original postcard, McWhorter said the figure could be the artist himself. Catlin usually portrayed himself in a safari outfit and a hat similar to that of the fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. In the painting, the figure is reclined on a hillside and is holding a spyglass looking onto the scene at the river.

“I wonder if at some point some owner thought it was a bit unseemly and painted the figure over kinda like adding a fig league to a sculpture,” said McWhorter.