Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CATLIN, GEORGE (1796-1872)

George Catlin, artist and visionary, achieved fame for his gallery of Indian portraits and scenes based on his travels in the American West from 1832 to 1836. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1796, Catlin trained as a lawyer before moving to Philadelphia in 1821, determined to make his mark as an artist. He specialized in miniature portraits, exhibited regularly, and, despite some evident technical limitations, became a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824. Bored with portraiture, he was already nurturing the idea of becoming a historical painter when he moved to New York in 1827 and the next year married Clara Gregory. He found his direction as an artist, he recalled, after encountering a visiting delegation of Indians and concluding on the spot that painting the Indians in their western wilderness would be his life's work.

Confident his efforts would command public support, Catlin moved to St. Louis in the spring of 1830 and two years later fully launched his career as an Indian painter when he boarded a steamboat for the 1,800-mile journey up the Missouri River to Fort Union, in the heart of Indian country. His five-month excursion yielded 170 paintings, with Crows, Blackfeet, and Mandans prominently featured. Subsequently, Catlin toured the Southern Plains (1834) and traveled up the Mississippi (1835-36), painting as he went. He described his experiences in letters to the newspapers, collected in 1841 as Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, and between trips exhibited his growing collection as Catlin's Indian Gallery. Besides more than 300 portraits of men and women from some fifty tribes, he displayed 200 paintings of western Indians engaged in their daily activities.

Catlin rightfully insisted that he was the first European American artist to offer the world a representative picture of Indian life based on personal observation. He characterized the West as "vast country of green fields, where the men are all red"–an apt description of his landscapes and group scenes. They were rendered in shorthand fashion, though he had a knack for the distinctive features of costume and terrain. Catlin's real gift was portraiture. His style was idiosyncratic, and he struggled, often unsuccessfully, to master anatomy. But he captured individual likenesses, and his artistic deficiencies never compromised his obvious admiration for the subjects before him.

Catlin formed his Indian Gallery without government patronage but turned to Congress in May 1838, confident it would reward his enterprise by purchasing his collection. Repeatedly frustrated in this hope, he commenced a lecture career that eventually transformed him into a full-time showman rather than the disinterested advocate for Indian rights he always fancied himself to be. Certain he would find a more receptive audience in Europe, he moved his family to England in November 1839, then to Paris in 1845. Despite flattering attention from crowned heads and commoners, a book recounting his experiences abroad (Notes of Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe, with His North American Indian Collection, 1848), private commissions, and numerous get-rich-quick schemes, Catlin slid into financial ruin. In 1852 his creditors seized his Indian Gallery. Bereft of his life's work, Catlin entered a period of relative obscurity and some remarkable accomplishments. He painted a second Indian gallery of nearly 300 oil "cartoons" recapitulating his original collection and another 300 showing Indians of the Northwest Coast and South America encountered on three trips he made in the 1850s. He also published several books, including two directed at younger readers (Life amongst the Indians, 1861, and Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes, 1867), and an important ethnographic study amplifying observations made among the Mandan Indians in 1832 (O-Kee-Pa, 1867). In 1871, after an absence of more than three decades, Catlin returned to the United States and exhibited his Cartoon Collection in New York and Washington DC. He died in Jersey City on December 23, 1872.

Today, visitors to the National Museum of American Art and the National Gallery of Art can sample both Catlin collections in the capital city of a nation that never extended him patronage but now treasures his enduring contribution to the American heritage.

Brian W. Dippie Montana Secretary of State's Office

Lucey, Donna. Photographing Montana, 1894–1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.

Raban, Jonathan. Bad Land: An American Romance. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Shirley, Gayle. "Evelyn Cameron, Frontier Photographer." In More Than Petticoats: Remarkable Montana Women. Helena MT: Falcon Publishing, 1995: 74–83.

Previous: Cameron, Evelyn | Contents | Next: Curry, John Steuart

XML: egp.art.013.xml