[Washington. ca. 1822]. Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 1/2 inches. In an elaborately carved gilt wood frame with some chipping at corners and outer edges, and separation at upper right corner of inner frame. Original canvas relined, but image in overall fine condition. Condition report available. Item #WRCAM52778
A handsome, large, and striking oil portrait of Major Benjamin O'Fallon, one of the leading figures in the early Missouri fur trade, and one of the founders of the military post at Council Bluffs, later named Fort Atkinson. Executed in Washington, D.C., around 1822 by Charles Bird King, it is one of the few existing portraits of an important figure in early expansion into the trans-Mississippi West. Benjamin O'Fallon was born in 1793 in Kentucky, into a prominent Bluegrass family. He was the nephew of William Clark, leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition and later governor of the Missouri Territory. From an early age he was raised in St. Louis under the guardianship of his uncle. He therefore came naturally to the Indian trade and exploration, making his first foray into trading in 1816. In 1819 he was appointed Indian agent for the upper Missouri and given the rank of major. He accompanied Stephen H. Long on an expedition to Council Bluffs in 1819, arriving there on Sept. 19, 1819 and establishing winter quarters there. Edwin James, in his account of the Long expedition, describes an Indian Council held there by O'Fallon on Oct. 3, as well as many other events in the first winter at the post. O'Fallon remained Indian commissioner for the Upper Missouri until 1827, and Fort Atkinson remained his headquarters when he was upriver, although he probably resided in St. Louis or Missouri the majority of the time. Charles Bird King (1785-1862) was born in Newport, Rhode Island. He trained in London under Benjamin West. He eventually settled in Washington, D.C. in 1819, calculating it was a good base for one who sought to earn a living mainly by portraiture. King painted the likenesses of many key Washington figures over the course of his career, and was therefore in the right place when Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas L. McKenney decided to add portraits of leading Indian chiefs to the collection of artifacts he had begun when he became superintendent of Indian trade in 1816. McKenney conceived the idea of an Indian portrait gallery at the time of the visit of a large delegation of Indians from the Upper Missouri to Washington in 1821-22, and King was commissioned to execute the portraits. The present portrait of Benjamin O'Fallon was almost certainly taken at the same time, since O'Fallon in his capacity as Indian agent accompanied the delegation to Washington, and it is also surmised that O'Fallon personally arranged the sittings with the Native American leaders for King. An important portrait of a prominent western explorer and trader, by a significant American painter.