Catlin, George (1796-1872)
George Catlin (1796-1872)
Innate Talent. George Catlin became the first painter to devote his career to the West. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Catlin studied law and practiced as a lawyer for a few years before, as he put it, selling his “law library” and “converting their proceeds into brushes and paint pots.” Without benefit of either a teacher or formal art training, he began his career as a painter of portrait miniatures in Philadelphia. In 1824 Catlin was elected to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1832 Catlin’s career changed when he witnessed a delegation of Indians passing through Philadelphia on their way to Washington. These Indians appeared to Catlin as “lords of the forest” who walked with “silent and stoic dignity.” He resolved that “nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.” Ignoring the objections of friends and relatives, Catlin boarded the American Fur Company’s steamer Yellowstone on its maiden voyage to the Upper Missouri River. Over the next eight years he traveled in the West, painting as many as 146 Indian nations. In his effort to document what he believed was a “doomed” race, Catlin worked from sketches to paint in a number of genres. His portraits, such as Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief of the Blood Tribe ofBlackfeet (1832), were among the first by an American artist to portray Indians as unique individuals. He also painted hunting scenes, ceremonial scenes, and landscapes, such as his panoramic view of The Pipestone Quarry (1848), a Santee Sioux site Catlin described as “great… in traditions, and stories, of which this Western world is full and rich.”
The Indian Gallery. In September 1837 Catlin returned East to open his Indian Gallery in New York. Initially, Eastern audiences did not know what to make of the brilliant face paint and the strange customs Catlin depicted; but Catlin had a flair for showmanship, and soon the tour became a popular success. The Indian Gallery traveled throughout the Eastern seaboard, garnering critical acclaim and large audiences. Despite this success, in 1839 the U.S. Senate voted not to purchase Catlin’s gallery and thereby support his project. Stung by this rejection, Catlin packed up the Indian Gallery and sailed for England. Here, too, the gallery was a tremendous success, and he was commanded to give a private showing to both England’s Queen Victoria and King Louis Philippe of France. In 1852, however, Catlin suffered bankruptcy, and he offered the Indian Gallery as collateral toward a loan that allowed him to pay off some of his creditors. He was never able to reclaim the original works, and he was forced to hastily produce a second, inferior group of paintings. Never fully escaping poverty, Catlin remained in Europe until 1870, returning to the United States only two years before his death.
Letters and Notes. In addition to his Indian Gallery, Catlin published Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians in 1841. Letters recounted Catlin’s adventures traveling in the West and his encounters with Native Americans. Catlin’s travels left him with a keen sense of the brutal and ruthless nature of advances of white “civilization.” The last chapter of Letters is a scathing critique of American expansionism. In Catlin’s view “the noble races of red men” were being eradicated by the advances of pioneers, fur traders, and American government policy. They had been “kicked about like dogs, by white men, and beaten into a sort of civilization.” He found Indians’ “rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed.” Such injustice called for “national retribution,” a retribution that would be served, Catlin warned, if not in the present, then surely “at the final day of resurrection!”
A Powerful and Ambiguous Influence. Catlin’s legacy is complex. His paintings made an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the Plains Indians of the early nineteenth century, yet at the same time they are sometimes primitive in execution and, for all his enthnographic care, inaccurate. Letters railed against social injustice, but his portraits rarely speak with the same force. Very few of Catlin’s paintings comment on the ramifications of the Euramerican-Indian encounter. Indeed, one recent critic has suggested that his work fostered nineteenth-century America’s romanticization of the Vanishing American, the sentimentalized lament—albeit from a safe distance since many of the Eastern and Midwestern Indians had already been displaced—for disappearing Indians and North American wilderness. Nevertheless, Catlin’s influence was and continues to be immense. He visualized the West and depicted Indians for a vast national and international audience. Further, his emphasis on firsthand observation and experience became part of the ethos of Western art.
Chris Bruce and others, The Myth of the West (Seattle: Rizzoli, 1990);
George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, 2 volumes (New York: Dover Publications, 1973);
Anne Farrar Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990);
Joan Carpenter Troccoli, First Artist of the West (Tulsa, Okla.: Gilcrease Museum, 1993).
George Catlin was born on July 26, 1796, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His father, a retired lawyer, sent George to Connecticut to study law in 1817. Two years later he began practicing law in Wilkes-Barre. But he was more interested in painting, natural history, and Native Americans and by 1821 had taught himself portrait painting. In 1823 he painted miniatures in Philadelphia, and on seeing a delegation of Native Americans from the Far West, he determined to become their historian. He went to Albany, N.Y., to paint a portrait of Governor DeWitt Clinton, who later assisted Catlin in many ways. A frequent guest at the governor's mansion, Catlin met there Clara Bartlett Gregory, whom he married in 1828.
The famous Seneca orator, Red Jacket, was the first Native American to pose for Catlin. During the next 4 years he divided his time between commissioned portraits and studies of Native Americans. Finally he gave up his lucrative career as a portraitist and in 1830 went to St. Louis to study and depict Native Americans before they were changed by civilization. After 7 years of hard work under very difficult circumstances, he fulfilled his ambition. For the first 2 years he painted portraits of tribal delegates who came to St. Louis to talk with Gen. William Clark, governor of the vast Indian Territory (a close friend of the affable artist). In 1832 he traveled 2,000 miles up the Missouri River by steamboat, later making a trip to Texas and also to the upper Mississippi River. During these trips he worked at a frantic pace, so that he had about 500 portraits and sketches, a superb collection of Naive American artifacts, and notes and impressions of 38 different tribes to be used later in his lectures and books.
Catlin had early exhibitions of his work in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. In 1836 he moved this material home to Albany, where he finished paintings and made additional ones from field sketches. He planned to hold an exhibition and lecture in New York and other big eastern cities and then take his unique collection to Washington, where he hoped it would become the nucleus of a great national museum financed by the U.S. government.
In New York City, "Catlin's Indian Gallery" in 1837 was a tremendous success. This was the first "Wild West" show—one of the most durable popular interests America was to experience. Catlin's message of the noble Native American corrupted by the white man disturbed many people. Although he used all his brilliance and charm on influential friends in Washington, Congress did not purchase his collection, which he exhibited in the capital in 1838. To his disappointment his Indian Gallery had little success in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, or in its second showing in New York.
In 1839 he took his gallery to London, where he again met with financial success. His wife and two daughters joined him. In 1841 he published his first book on Native Americns in North American. In 1845, when London tired of the show, he went to Paris, where his wife died. Except for a painting trip to South America from 1852 to 1857, financed by Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Catlin lived in Europe until his return to New York in 1870. He died on Dec. 23, 1872.
Catlin's most important work, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, which first appeared in London in 1841, has had numerous reprints and subsequent editions. Loyd Haberly, Pursuit of the Horizon (1948), is an interesting biography, and Harold McCracken, George Catlin and the Old Frontier (1959), is scholarly and well illustrated. Thomas Donaldson, The George Catlin Indian Gallery in the U.S. National Museum (1885), is the basic reference book on Catlin's work. □