This painting was part of a series completed by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Memin, a French immigrant who frequently painted visitors of President Thomas Jefferson. This group of visitors were especially important, as they were composed of 14 members of the Osage (Ni-U-Kon-Ska) Nation, who were the most powerful force in Missouri in 1804. The Osage would have stood out among the other visitors, due to their traditional clothing and hairstyles, which would have contrasted with the Western Eurocentric clothing and hairstyles that most other delegates wore. The Osage held proudly to their traditions, even after many settlers began to move West.
The details of what the man is wearing helps reveal information about both the Osage Nation and Osage-American diplomatic relations. The man in the painting is wearing a typical Osage hairstyle, tied with pieces of leather, and a “roach” headdress, made of porcupine quills, which was also popular with Osage men in 1804. While it was common for many Osage to wear paint on their bodies, as the man in the painting wears it on his eyelids, cheeks, and chest, the pattern of the paint was unique to each person. The man is also wearing an ornate decoration on his head, made of hallowed bones and a bird skull. Like many other Osage, his earrings are made of feathers and glass beads.
The silver arm band and black cravat that he wears around his neck helps to explain what Osage-American relations were like in 1804. When the American government met with Native Americans, the delegates would have expected to receive a gift. The U.S. officials presented the 1804 Osage delegation with gifts that were dependent upon their rank in the delegation. The Chief would have received the most gifts, such as medallions, and cravats. Members that were important, but ranked below the chief, could have expected to receive a blanket at this meeting. However, the subject of this painting likely ranked lower than the rest, as he only received an arm band and black cravat, which were smaller presents.
At this meeting with Jefferson, the Osage performed a traditional dance, and their interactions prompted Jefferson to later regard them as “the finest men we have ever seen.” Despite these words seeming to establish diplomatic relations between the two nations, this visit would set the foundation for a series of treaties that would displace the Osage from the land on which they lived in Missouri and Arkansas.