Charles Bird King (1785-1862)
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Charles Bird King was a talented early American portrait painter known for his depiction of Native Americans. In particular, King painted portraits of the Native American chiefs and dignitaries that came to Washington to speak with government officials.
Born in Newport, Rhode Island, King received some of his earliest artistic training in London under Allston and Leslie. King continued to live in England for several years (1806-1812) studying and working. While in London, he also studied at the Royal Academy under Benjamin West and Edward Savage. It is said that his earliest pieces, which included still life compositions and certainly included landscapes, were not as successful as his portraits.
Upon his return to the United States in 1812, he resided in Pennsylvania with fellow artist Thomas Sully. During this time he exhibited his work with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine art for a number of years. He moved to Baltimore in 1815 and was called back to Rhode Island due to a death in the family.
King set up shop in Washington D. C. where he stayed from 1822 until his death in 1862. For forty years he worked primarily in Washington D.C. painting portraits. Besides painting Native American dignitaries, he also was commissioned to create portraits of American government officials, wealthy families and prominent figures of the day. Some art historians name King as the most sought after portraitist in Washington D.C. during his lifetime.
King was also a generous patron of the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island and was said to have donated money, books, engravings and over two hundred of his paintings to the library.
In total, it is said that King painted nearly 150 paintings of Native Americans, a project which took him 16 years to complete. These paintings were exhibited at the Nation Indian Portrait Gallery, established in 1817. It is said by some art historians that King was most likely the first portrait artist to portray tribal leaders from the west. These paintings were later transferred to the Smithsonian where it is thought that they were all destroyed in a fire in 1865. Copies of each had been made by painter Henry Inman, but could some of the originals have survived?
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