The history of the United States is a wild and crazy one. From the early fifteenth century onward people have been colonizing the continent of North America. People wanted to preserve the history that was being laid out before them. Some of them wrote books, and many others did great art history paintings to remember the past.
The subjects of many of the first paintings done were the colonists themselves. Before most Europeans even arrived, the Spanish had already begun settling Mexico, the southwest, and Florida. Many of the Spaniards had valiant portraits of themselves done, reflecting the conquistadors of their age.
The Spanish also painted many pictures of the natives in Mexico. Many paintings of the Mayans and Aztecs were done before the Spaniards started their conquest of Mexico. These paintings give us an idea about Aztec and Mayan life.
The French were the next to come into the Americas and they mainly started settling in the St. Lawrence River area of Canada. These people took up a lucrative fur trade with the native population. Pictures of trading posts and friendly relations with Indians were done frequently here.
When the British arrived in the Americas, there was not an influx of art like during the Spanish and French arrivals. The British were mainly concerned about setting up a dependent colony in the Americas. This was successfully done at Jamestown in the middle of the seventeenth century.
Painting did not start to pick up again in the Americas until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Once again, the subjects of most of these paintings were the native peoples that gathered and hunted on the land. Many of these paintings sold for high prices.
When the Indian population of the Americas started to deteriorate, famous painter Catlin went to capture pictures of Indians untouched by civilization. He wanted to show people what was happening to civilized Indians. Catlin traveled up the Missouri River and painted over one thousand paintings.
There are many criticisms to the paintings that Catlin did. Most of his critics were people that had been up the Missouri River. They claimed that nothing Catlin painted was even close to how it actually was. As a painter, Catlin painted what he wanted people to see. He would embellish scenes to make his paintings easier to sell.
Catlin tried to sell his enormous collection to the United States government. This goal was never achieved before he died. Catlin gave us paintings that offer a glimpse, however not a very accurate one, of the native populations before mass settling of the west started.
Many paintings of the era were focused on the new idea of Manifest Destiny, which is the idea that settlers had a right given to them by God to settle the west and displace the natives. Many of these paintings used stark color changes. Some of them made the east look bright and holy, while the west was being consumed by the light as settlers moved west. The art history paintings can give us a glimpse into the not so distant past.