George Catlin was among the earliest Euro-American artists to paint the Indigenous peoples and landscapes of the Great Plains. His stated ambition was to “rescue” and preserve the appearance, costume, and customs of the peoples of the Plains, because in his opinion “they are ‘doomed’ and must perish.” The publications and the “Indian Gallery” that Catlin produced from touring Native territory from 1830 to 1836 did more to disseminate information about and promote interest in Plains culture than any previous efforts.
George Catlin was born on July 26, 1796, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the son of Revolutionary War veteran Putnam Catlin and Polly Catlin. Prior to becoming an artist, he started his career as an attorney. Raised on a farm, he was sent by his parents to a private academy for his education in 1810. Catlin then entered law school in 1817 and passed the Connecticut bar exam the following year. He returned to Pennsylvania to enter legal practice with his older brother. However, the law profession did not inspire Catlin. He claimed to be compelled to follow “another and a stronger passion . . . that for painting.”
Distracted during his legal career by his constant sketching of judges, juries, and clients, Catlin had already acquired some facility in draftsmanship. In 1821 the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts accepted four of Catlin’s miniatures for its annual exhibition. Three years later the academy accepted him as a full member based upon his work as a miniaturist and portrait painter. Ambitiously seeking further academic accomplishment, in 1826 Catlin moved to New York City, where he exhibited and earned membership in the National Academy of Design. His association with the National Academy, however, was short-lived. He resigned after a dispute over the poor hanging of three of his portraits in the annual exhibition of 1827. In fact, Catlin’s portraiture did not achieve the technical accomplishment of his peers. William Dunlap, perhaps the first important chronicler of the arts and design in the United States, described Catlin as an “utterly incompetent” portrait painter.
While on a sketching trip in upstate New York in 1826, Catlin executed his first portrait of a Native American, the important Seneca leader Red Jacket. At about this time, he announced to his colleagues his ambition to record the Indigenous nations of North America and produce an extensive gallery of portraits to preserve their history. In 1830, against the wishes of his family, Catlin embarked on a westward expedition. Arriving in St. Louis, he solicited the advice of William Clark before heading to Fort Leavenworth to begin his ambitious project. Catlin would spend the next six years traveling through the West and drawing, painting, and gathering artifacts. According to his Letters and Notes, Catlin visited forty-eight tribes and painted 310 portraits and more than 200 genre subjects, recording Native leaders and the rituals of their people, some of which could not be subsequently witnessed by Euro-Americans. In the summer of 1832 he stayed at Fort Clark, close to the Mandan village where the Mandan chief Four Bears received the artist as a great medicine man because of the magic of his paintings. Four Bears entertained Catlin, related the lengthy history of his people, and introduced him to the O-Kee-pa, the Mandan initiation ceremony. Catlin’s images of the self-mutilation and ritual dance of the O-Kee-pa are the earliest images by Anglo-Americans to record this tortuous rite central to Mandan culture.
Catlin professed that he wished to preserve the image of the ideal “primitive” man through his portraits, such as that of Keokuk on horseback. The romantic conception of the uncivilized “savage” developed from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy of the natural man as a more pure human, in closer contact with nature, from whom “civilized” men could learn about the origins of humanity. Yet based upon his experiences, Catlin objected to the term “savage, as expressive of the most ferocious, cruel, and murderous character that can be described,” while he found the Native American to be “endowed by his maker with all the humane and noble traits that inhabit the heart of a tame man.” Ironically, however, Catlin’s work did perpetuate this stereotype of Native Americans and exploited their culture as a theatrical curiosity for Anglo-Americans and Europeans. Furthermore, he proved quite the promoter and was prone to exaggerate Native life and customs through his words and paintings, leading one contemporary to accuse Catlin of “a great deal of humbug.”
In the fall of 1837 Catlin opened his traveling “Indian Gallery” in New York. He attempted to persuade Congress to acquire the complete set as a historical record of the Plains Indian nations. But after years of futile efforts, he abandoned hopes to make his work part of the nation’s archives. Recognizing the European fascination with exotic western Americana, Catlin traveled in 1840 to London, where his gallery was very popular. He added to his gallery a live production of Ojibwa in a stage routine that prefigured the theatrical “Wild West Shows” later in the century. While in London he published his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians and followed with a set of twenty-five lithographs titled North American Indian Portfolio. In 1845, Catlin moved his gallery and show to Paris, where he experienced similar success and received the patronage of King Louis Philippe, who commissioned fifteen copies of his Indian Gallery. Unfortunately, Catlin’s Paris days were difficult. His wife died, and he was forced by the 1848 rebellions to flee the city. Despite his considerable success in Europe, Catlin had not managed his money well and was sentenced to a debtors’ prison in 1852. His debts were absolved through the benevolence of American Joseph Harrison, who bought the collection.
Seeking to revive his reputation and to create a new body of work, Catlin embarked on a series of three trips to South America between 1853 and 1860 to produce a historical record of Indigenous people there, but the works did not receive the popular response of his earlier work. Following his South American ventures, he moved in 1860 to Brussels, where he remained unti1 1870, when he returned to the United States. At the invitation of Joseph Henry, secretary and director of the Smithsonian Institution, Catlin installed his gallery at the Smithsonian, where he lived in a small tower apartment. Becoming ill, Catlin moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, where he died on December 12, 1872. Catlin was a forgotten man at his death. It was not until 1879 that the heirs of Joseph Harrison donated his Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian Institution in realization of the artist’s lifelong ambition.
Catlin, George. Archives. Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa.
———. Indian Gallery. National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
———. Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians. 1841. Repr., New York: Dover, 1973.
Eisler, Benita. The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.
Gurney, George, and Therese Thau Heyman, eds. George Catlin and His Indian Gallery. Washington, DC, and New York: Smithsonian American Art Museum and W. W. Norton, 2003.
Troccoli, Joan Carpenter. First Artist of the West: George Catlin Paintings and Watercolors. Tulsa, OK: Gilcrease Museum, 1993.
Truettner, William G. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.
Published February 9, 2023
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