Henry Inman


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Henry Inman and Thomas L. McKenney and the publication of the History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1837‑1844)

The Thomas L. McKenney collection of Indian portraits by Henry Inman is an outstanding artistic and anthropological record of the native American.  While Inman's accomplishment is self‑evident from the quality of his portraits, the road to his success took many turns.

The story begins in 1820 with Thomas L. McKenney, then United States superintendent of Indian trade and soon to be director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the War Department.  McKenney passionately hoped to establish a national collection of Indian artifacts and records, including a portrait gallery of leading Indian dignitaries. Fortunately, his opportunities to start such a collection were many, since, during the 1820s, delegations of Indian tribes continually visited the nation's capitol to negotiate treaties and find recourse for tribal complaints.

Prompted by his hopes for a portrait gallery, McKenney commissioned Charles Bird King, a portrait painter of reputation in Washington, to paint the Indian visitors in Washington.  By 1830 King had painted from life over one hundred Indian portraits.  This group of paintings and those added by other artists, especially James Otto Lewis who sent portraits back from treaty negotiations in Michigan, were eventually moved from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Smithsonian Institution, where on January 24, 1865, a fire raged through the art gallery, completely destroying this important collection.  Fortunately, McKenney had hired Henry Inman in 1831 to copy the original paintings by King and others for lithographic subjects. 

Born in Utica, New York, in 1801, Henry Inman moved to New York City with his family at age eleven.  Declining an appointment to West Point in 1814, he apprenticed himself to the portrait painter John Wesley Jarvis.  In 1823 he established his own studio in New York with a former student, Thomas S. Cummings.  Moving to Philadelphia in 1831, Inman again set up a studio and also became a partner with Cephas G. Childs in a lithographic firm.  It was during this stay in Philadelphia that McKenney commissioned Inman to make copies of the Indian portraits.  Inman's involvement with McKenney first began when Andrew Jackson took office in 1830.  McKenney lost his political appointment but still hoped to realize the National Indian Gallery in printed form.  He therefore established a network of friends and financial supporters to assist in the eventual publication of the History of the Indian Tribes of North America.  Although McKenney no longer had easy access to the portraits in the Indian gallery, he surreptitiously had them sent from Washington to Philadelphia where he now lived.  McKenney then commissioned Henry Inman to copy the portraits into a larger format to be used as the basis for the colored lithographs in his projected book.

Many tribulations delayed publication, but, finally, between 1837 and 1844, three volumes of McKenney and James Hall's (co‑author) History of the Indian Tribes of North America appeared, containing approximately two-thirds of the portraits Inman had created.  The remaining third were apparently intended for a never‑realized fourth volume.