Charles Bird King: Wikis


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Charles Bird King
Self-portrait, aged 70
Born September 26, 1785
Newport, Rhode Island
Died March 18, 1862
Washington D.C.
Nationality American
Field Painting, including Portraiture, Still Life, and Genre
Training Edward Savage in New York, and Benjamin West at the Royal Academy in London
Works Native American portraiture commissioned by the United States Government from 1822-1842
Patrons John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster
Influenced by 16th and 17th Dutch painting

Charles Bird King (1785–1862) is a United States artist who is best known for his portraiture. In particular, the artist is notable for the portraits he painted of Native American delegates coming to Washington D.C., which were commissioned by government's Bureau of Indian Affairs.



Charles Bird King was born in Newport, Rhode Island as the only child of Deborah Bird and American Revolutionary veteran Captain Zebulon King. The family traveled west, but when King was four years old, his father was killed and scalped by Native Americans near Marietta, Ohio. King and his mother moved back to Newport to live with Bird's mother.[1]

Detail of a self-portrait aged 30, 1815

When King was fifteen, he went to New York to study under the portrait painter Edward Savage. At age twenty he moved to London to study under the famous painter Benjamin West at the esteemed Royal Academy. King returned to the U.S. due to the War of 1812 after a seven-year stay in London, and spent time working in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond. He eventually settled in Washington, due to the economic appeal that the burgeoning city offered. In the nation’s new capital, the artist earned a solid reputation as a portraitist among politicians, and earned enough to maintain his own studio and gallery.[2] King’s economic success in the art world, particularly in the field of portraiture, had more to do with his ability to socialize with the wealthy celebrities, and relate to the well educated politicians of the time: "His industry and simple habits enabled him to acquire a handsome competence, and his amiable and exemplary character won him many friends".[3] These patrons included John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, James Monroe, and Daniel Webster.[4] In fact, King’s popularity and steady stream of work that was dependent on his location in the capitol left him with little reason or need to leave Washington.[3] Despite his wealth and societal standing, the artist never married, and remained in Washington until his death on March 18, 1862.

Styles and influences

The Poor Artist's Cupboard, ca. 1815

Though King’s legacy lies in his portraiture, throughout his career he also demonstrated a great technical skill in still life, genre, and literary paintings. It has been assumed that he would have preferred to focus on the pursuit of these styles throughout his career, but he had to give into popular demand, as the only money to be made within the art market of the United States in the early part of the 19th century was in painting portraits. His inclination towards genre and still life paintings can be traced back to his seven year stay in London, as the 16th and 17th style attributed to masters in Northern Europe, especially that of the Dutch and Flemish, was quite popular in the upper echelons of the art culture. Thus, while attending the Royal Academy King was swayed towards the Dutch styles by the demand such works commanded, but in turn, he also had better access to these works. In fact, it is likely that through his schooling he was able to study the British royal collection, as “Prince of Wales, and Regent, George IV collected Dutch art voraciously…” and the prints were the favored style at the time by other members European royalty. King took more than mere stylistic cues from these examples, as he also employed some of the specific techniques that he saw. In reviewing his paintings, it becomes apparent that he “sometimes relied upon Dutch prints for formal solutions [5]", as the prints provided a source of valued composition. As King’s formal education was bolstered by examples of revered art from the Netherlands and surrounding regions, and many of his paintings include features that indicate a direct mirroring of Dutch art, it is clear that the artist derived his favor for genre and still life paintings from this style. As noted above, King also incorporated the stylistic tools of Dutch painting into his portraits, though he recognized that the United States was not yet as familiar the references to the style as it would be in the sphere of “post-Civil War materialism… [3]".

Portrait of Senator William Hunter of Rhode Island, 1824

Beyond his specific connection to Dutch painting, King is known to have been especially committed to staying within the confines of the traditional style of painting that he learned in his youth: “it is apparent that the artist would adapt, time and again, traditional European mannerisms to his new and native subject matter”[3]. While King completed a number of paintings that invoked Dutch painting technique, he is modestly known as an important figure in the 19th century United States art world for the overwhelming number of portraits the country’s government commissioned him to do of Native Americans. He was also commissioned by the government for portraits of celebrated war heroes, and privately, by the political elite to capture their importance before the time of photography. Despite the popularity he enjoyed at the time of his career, he is often forgotten in the broad scope of art history when placed amidst the talent of his contemporaries. His relative obscurity may be due in part to a few reasons, but the most prevalent is that his works were not necessarily anything of marvel, meaning that he did not lean towards any sort of innovation, but rather he strove to demonstrate the techniques which he learned from his studies. Other reasons for the lack of recognition that the artist receives may be due in part to the loss of many of his Indian portraits to a fire in the Smithsonian.

Native American portraits

Young Omahaw, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawnees, 1821, now in the Smithsonian Institution.

Smithsonian Art Historian Herman J. Viola remarks in the preface to The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King that the reason he chose to compile the book is in response to his desire to acknowledge King, as well as his Native American subjects, for the part they played in initiating the movement to begin what is now a valuable collection of Indian portraits compiled by the government, private collectors, and museums containing works by a number of talented United States’ painters including James Otto Lewis and George Cooke. King’s work makes up a bulk of the collection with over 143 paintings done during the wide span of 1822 to 1842 [6]. The idea for the federal government to sponsor the collection of portraits came from King’s friend Thomas McKenney, who served as the United States superintendent of Indian trade in Georgetown and later as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Beyond the obvious interest that McKenney must have had in the natives, it was because he held the common belief that early United States belief that the indigenous people were nearing extinction that he eagerly sought to find ways to preserve the culture. After his attempts to collect artifacts from different tribes turned out to be somewhat disappointing, the superintendent spawned the idea for the collection of portraits. This thought coincided with meeting of King, and the appreciation of his talent as a portrait painter: “The arrival of Charles Bird King on the Washington scene inspired the imaginative McKenney to add portraits to his archives” [6] In the most convenient fashion, King was able to paint his subjects in his own studio, as McKenney was able to easily obtain the consent of the Native Americans who came to Washington to do conduct business with the United States government through his new department. King’s 20-year role in developing this collection turned out to be extremely profitable for the artist. He charged at least $20 for a bust, and $27 for a full figure portrait, allowing him to collect an estimated $3,500 from the government [6].

The portraits gained a good deal of publicity that spanned beyond Washington during the period in which they were painted due mostly to the industry that McKenney put into the project. McKenney’s interest in the collection culminated in his work to publish the works for broader distribution, and in 1829 he began what would become many years worth of work on the three-volume work History of the Indian Tribes of North America [6]. The project featured the many portraits of Native Americans, mostly King’s, in lithograph form, accompanied by an essay on the subject matter by author James Hall.

After McKenney was dismissed from his position as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the collection was donated to the National Institute, where it shoddy care and displays kept it from the public eye [6]. When the National Institute deteriorated, it gave its work to the Smithsonian Institution in 1858 [6], and King’s portraits were displayed among similar paintings by New York artist John Mix Stanley in a gallery containing 291 paintings of Native American portraits and scenes. On January 24, 1865 a fire destroyed the paintings in this gallery, though a few of King’s were saved before the flames spread. Those images that were destroyed somewhat remain due to McKenney’s lithograph collection.




Lithographs of Native Americans

Lithographs from Thomas L. McKenney & James Hall. History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Philadelphia: F.W. Greenough, 1838-1844

Still life


  • The Annual Exhibition Record of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 1813
  • Louisville Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, May 1834
  • Philadelphia Artists, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 8, 1839
  • Artists' Fund Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1845
  • The McKenney & Hall Lithographs of Charles Bird King’s Portraits of American Indians, Smithsonian Institution Building, 1990-1996

Sampling of works

  • William Pinkey (1815) Maryland Historical Society
  • General John Stricker (1816) Maryland Historical Society
  • The Poor Artist’s Cupboard (c. 1815) Corcoran Gallery of Art
  • Wicked Chief (c.1822) White House Library
  • Vanity Of An Artist’s Dream (1830) Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University
  • Fruit Piece with Pineapples (1840) John S. H. Russell, Newport, Rhode Island
  • Young Omaha, War Eagle, Little Missouri, and Pawness (c. 1821) National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution
  • Hoowaunneka [Little Elk], Winnebago, (1828), Peabody Museum, Harvard University.
  • Wajechai [Crouching Eagle], (1824), Gulf States Paper Corporation, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
  • Pushmataha, The Sapling is Ready for Him, (1824), Gulf States Paper Corporation Collection, Tuscalossa, Alabama.
  • Joseph Porus [Polis], Penobscot, (1842), Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma.


  1. ^ Viola, Herman J. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. 1st ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
  2. ^ Viola, Herman J. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King 1st ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
  3. ^ a b c d Consentino, Andrew J. "Charles Bird King: an Appreciation." American Art Journal 6 (1974): 54-71. JSTOR.
  4. ^ Truettner, William, ed. "Have a Question?" Smithsonian American Art Museum. 1991. Smithsonian Institution Press. <>.
  5. ^ Clark, Nichols B. "A Taste for the Netherlands: the Impact of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Genre Painting on American Art 1800-1860. American Art Journal 14 (1982): 29. JSTOR.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Viola, Herman J. The Indian Legacy of Charles Bird King. 1st ed. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

External links


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