George Catlin (1796 -1872)
by Jeff Smith
Only about a generation had passed between the return of the Corps of Discovery, led by William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, and the arrival in the trans-Mississippi West of George Catlin. Clark, now sixty, was still alive and serving as U.S. Indian Commissioner when Catlin arrived in St. Louis in 1830, and allowed the young artist to accompany him on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River. Catlin made four more journeys into the West over the next six years, visiting some fifty tribes. It was the beginning of a life dedicated to documenting and preserving Native American culture that led to a life marked by financial ruin and disappointment.
George Catlin (1796-1872) came by his interest in the West and native tribes honestly. He grew up with Indian captivity narratives at the knee of his mother, who regaled him with stories of her capture by Indians as a girl. But Catlin also spent a great deal of time in the woods, learning to hunt, fish, and read the landscape despite his family’s aspirations that he become a lawyer. “The early part of my life was whiled away, apparently, somewhat in vain,” Catlin wrote, “with books reluctantly held in one hand, and a rifle or fishing-pole firmly and affectionately grasped in the other.” Finding himself ill-suited to the law, Catlin gave it up and sold everything “save my rifle and fishing-tackle” to learn to paint in Philadelphia. He started painting native peoples when a diplomatic delegation arrived there. He spent most of the 1830s in the Great West, using St. Louis as his base of operations, painting and describing the tribes and lives he saw in five journeys to the West.
He returned to the East in 1838 to assemble “Catlin’s Indian Gallery” to show in most major American cities as far west as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He expanded the Gallery to take on tour in Europe, including more than 600 artworks along with artifacts he’d collected—and even a delegation of Native Americans to perform. Much of Catlin’s life was marked by financial problems; he lost the collection once to pay debts, and more of it to damage from storage and neglect. His great dream was to sell his collection to the United States government to house at the Smithsonian, a measure that failed by one vote in the U.S. Senate (which he blamed in part on a vote against it by his friend, Sen. Jefferson Davis). His works were exhibited briefly in the 1880s and at the White House in 1961, but otherwise largely ignored until the late 1980s. In the last quarter-century or so, he has finally been recognized for his work in documenting the people, culture, and lives of native tribes that had limited contact with Europeans and Americans when he visited them.
On the one hand, it is easy to see Catlin’s art and writings as sentimental, Eurocentric, and perhaps even racist. But we need to see Catlin in the context of his time. There was great interest in native peoples in the trans-Mississippi West in the early nineteenth century in both Europe and the United States. The Corps of Discovery was part of this interest, with Lewis and Clark documenting an array of qualities about the landscape, flora, fauna, and peoples in the West. Subsequently, a number of writers traveled west over the next generation, all of whom stopped at William Clark’s museum at his Council House in St. Louis to consult the former explorer.
Catlin believed that native tribes were on the verge of extinction, and that their culture would be lost forever unless someone documented it. There were even those who wondered if they were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. His language can bristle today, like many of his day, and he clearly saw Americans as “civilized” as a juxtaposition to the “natural” Indians. Still, he gives us the most complete eyewitness account of many tribes, both in words and pictures, from the time. His collected works are a vivid snapshot of these tribes at a critical moment, on the edge of white contact and on the eve of many being decimated by smallpox in the late 1830s. When his works appeared in Paris, one critic said that he “captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way.” Catlin was, no doubt, proud.
Catlin, George. North America Indians, Ed. Peter Matthiessen. Penguin Books, 2004.
Catlin, George, and Heyman, Therese Thau. George Catlin and His Indian Gallery. Washington: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2002.
Redrawing Boundaries: Perspectives on Western American Art, Introduction by Peter H. Hassrick; essays by Brian Dippie et.al. ( Denver: Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, 2007). Call number N8214.5 w4 R43 2007
Pratt, Stephanie and Troccoli, Joan Carpenter. George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014
Some at the High Plains Chautauqua may find that George Catlin bears a striking resemblance to both industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and explorer William Clark. That’s because Jeffrey Smith has appeared under the High Plains Chautauqua tent as both. Smith is professor of history at Lindenwood University, and lives in St. Louis. He also portrays George Washington and P. T. Barnum. His current writing interest is in the field of death studies, focusing on the rural cemetery movement; his social history of Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis is slated for publication this year.
“And in future what a splendid contemplation . . . when one . . . imagines them [Native Americans] as they might be seen, by some great protecting policy of government preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes.”
“Black and blue cloth and civilization are destined, not only to veil but to obliterate the grace and beauty of Nature. Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, is surely the most beautiful model for the painter.”
“The very use of the word savage, as it is applied in its general sense, I am inclined to believe is an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied.”
“I have, for many years past, contemplated the noble races of red men who are now spread over these trackless forests and boundless prairies, melting away at the approach of civilization."
1796 George Catlin was born in Pennsylvania on July 26.
1832 Catlin made his first expedition up the Missouri River.
1832 Catlin ascended the Missouri River for the first time, reaching Fort Union in present-day North Dakota.
1837 Catlin left the West to organize “Catlin’s Indian Gallery” of portraits and oil paintings of western and Native American subjects and artifacts—including a tepee. It traveled to the largest cities on the eastern seaboard.
1839 Catlin traveled to London and rented the Egyptian Hall to exhibit his Indian Gallery, complete with members of the Iowa and Ojibwa tribes. Later, the Gallery traveled to Paris and Brussels as well.
1844 Catlin published his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians in London.
1852 Catlin sold his collection to pay debts. Steam boiler manufacturer Joseph Harrison acquired all 607 paintings and stored them in Philadelphia.
1853 Despite the support of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, the Senate voted not to appropriate funds for the Smithsonian to purchase Catlin’s collection; the measure fell by one vote. Soon after, the collection of the now-penniless Catlin was ruined by mice, insects, water, and fire.
1853 Catlin began recreating his paintings from sketches and memory.
1868 Catlin returned from an expedition along the Pacific coast that spanned both the Americas, and published Last Rambles Amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes.
1870 Catlin returned to New York and painted. The American Museum of Natural History stored the collection of paintings for nearly a century.
1872 Catlin died on December 23.