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Catlin, George
b. 1792; d. 1872
Discipline: Painting

Image by George Catlin

"I found that my shot had entered him (a buffalo bull) a little too far forward, breaking one of his shoulders, and lodging in his breast, and from his very great weight it was impossible for him to make much advance upon me. As I rode up within a few paces of him, he would bristle up with fury enough in his looks alone, almost to annihilate me; and making one lunge at me, would fall upon his neck and nose, so that I found the sagacity of my horse alone enough to keep me out of reach of danger; and I drew from my pocket my sketch-book, laid my gun across my lap, and commenced taking his likeness. He stood stiffened up, and swelling with awful vengeance, which was sublime for a picture, but which he could not vent upon me. I rode around him and sketched him in numerous attitudes, sometimes he would lie down, and I would then sketch him; then throw my cap at him, and rousing him on his legs, rally a new expression, and sketch him again."

- George Catlin

Standing on the deck of the Yellow Stone, the first steamer to churn up the Missouri River as far as Fort Union, George Catlin gazed at the river bank lined with Crow, Blackfeet and Assiniboine Indians. The sound of cannon fire echoed across the broad valley at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.

Catlin left St. Louis March 26, 1832, traveling 2,000 miles to reach Fort Union on June 6.

The self-taught, 36-year-old artist had bet his future on this pilgrimage into the wilderness. He expected to return to St. Louis with a wealth of images of Indian life and portraits of native Indian leaders uncorrupted by contact with whites. From the pages of his sketchbook and simple canvases, he would create paintings that preserved the Indian way in oil. Catlin planned to exhibit this "Indian Gallery" in the East, sell it to the United States' government and secure his financial and professional future.

On the Upper Missouri in 1832, there were Indians living as they always had, as they had when the Lewis and Clark Expedition visited 26 years before. It was the stuff of Catlin's dream.

"I have for a long time been of opinion, that the wilderness of our country afforded models equal to those from which the Grecian sculptors transferred to the marble such inimitable grace and beauty; and I am now more confirmed in this opinion, since I have immersed myself in the midst of thousands and tens of thousands of these knights of the forest; whose whole lives are lives of chivalry, and whose daily feats, with their naked limbs, might vie with those of the Grecian youths in the beautiful rivalry of the Olympian games," wrote Catlin, in his "Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians," first published in England in 1844.

After about a month at Fort Union, drawing and painting, Catlin was ready to begin his descent of the Missouri. Five feet, 8 inches and under 140 pounds, Catlin was a competent outdoorsman. Still, he hired two trappers to help him make his way by dugout down river to St. Louis.

"Our canoe, which was made of green timber, was heavy and awkward; but our course being with the current, promised us a fair and successful voyage. Ammunition was laid in abundance - a good stock of dried buffalo tongues - a dozen or two beavers' tails - and a good supply of pemmican. Bogard and Ba'tiste occupied the middle and bow, with their paddles in their hands; and I took my seat in the stern of the boat, at the steering oar."

On the way back, Catlin spent about a month at Fort Clark, capturing images of the Mandan people, and another month above the mouth of the Kansas, painting tribes in that area.

European-American westward expansion had not yet transformed the Mandans, Hidatsa, Asinine, Blackfoot, Crow and Sioux by 1832, but Catlin knew it was inevitable. He understood that the original inhabitants of America were vanishing, and he wanted to collect their true essence.

"I have visited forty-eight different tribes, the greater part of which I found speaking different languages, and containing in all 400,000 souls. I have brought home safe, and in good order, 310 portraits in oil, all painted in their native dress, and in their own wigwams; and also 200 other paintings in oil, containing views of their villages -- their wigwams -- their games and religious ceremonies -- their dances -- their ball plays -- their buffalo hunting, and other amusements (containing in all, over 3000 full-length figures); and the landscapes of the country they live in, as well as a very extensive and curious collection of their costumes, and all their other manufactures, from the size of a wigwam down to the size of a quill or a rattle," he wrote in "Letters and Notes."

Catlin wasn't limited to the paintbrush. He took extensive notes while in the West and turned them into popular articles and books. His "Letters and Notes" is fascinating.

Although the public flocked to his Indian Gallery in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Albany, Troy and New York City, Catlin couldn't convince Congress to buy the collection. The rumored price: $150,000. Before deciding to take the Indian Gallery to Europe, Catlin dropped his demand to $60,000 - still no offer came.

Late in 1839, Catlin set sail for England, where he exhibited the Indian Gallery in the Egyptian Hall in London. It was an instant success. His wife, Clara, and two daughters followed him, and a third daughter was born in England in 1841. In addition to lecturing, Catlin promoted performances by visiting groups of American Indians - Wild West shows. But Catlin's success didn't last. Money remained tight, and, in 1845, his wife died. Catlin took the Indian Gallery and girls to France, where again he was well received, becoming the friend of King Louis Philippe. Unfortunately, during that time the king was deposed and Catlin was forced to flee to England, where creditors awaited him. The Indian Gallery was seized to cover his debt and sold at auction to Joseph Harrison, an American industrialist from Philadelphia.

After being released from debtors prison, Catlin returned to France, and there he began re-creating the Indian Gallery from his sketches and notes. He also traveled to South America and up the West Coast of the United States, painting native people and landscapes.

He continued, with little success, to try to interest Congress in preserving the heritage of Indian people by purchasing his Indian Gallery.

Catlin returned to the United States in 1870, where the 74-year-old visionary was given a small tower room at the Smithsonian. He was still trying to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government. He died in 1872. And the Harrison family donated the Catlin Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian seven years later.


"The horses are wild -- every dog is a wolf -- the whole moving mass are strangers to me: the living, in everything, carry an air of intractable wildness about them, and the dead are not buried, but dried upon scaffolds."

- George Catlin

If there was a time in Catlin's life when everything went right, it was during the month he spent at Fort Clark and at the two nearby Mandan Indian villages. American Fur Company agent James Kipp gave Catlin a place to stay and helped the artist gain the confidence of the Mandan people.

Catlin painted at a furious pace. John C. Ewers, in his biographical essay, "George Catlin, Painter of Indians and the West," figures Catlin spent 86 days on his Upper Missouri trip, and during that time he "created more than 135 pictures -- some 66 Indian portraits, 36 scenes in Indian life, 25 landscapes and at least 8 hunting scenes."

"Letters and Notes" contains detailed descriptions of the Mandan villages and way of life. It includes a description of the famous Mandan second chief, Four Bears, who made a powerful impression on Catlin. Catlin wrote:
"This extraordinary man, though second in office is undoubtedly the first and most popular man in the nation. Free, generous, elegant and gentlemanly in his deportment -- handsome, brave and valiant; wearing a robe on his back, with the history of his battles emblazoned on it; which would fill a book of themselves, if properly translated. This, readers, is the most extraordinary man, perhaps, who lives at this day, in the atmosphere of Nature's nobleman . . . (Letters and Notes, P. 92)"

The pinnacle of Catlin's time at Fort Clark was when he was allowed to attend the Mandans' most significant religious ceremony -- O-kee-pa. Few whites had or would ever see this ceremony, making Catlin's writings and paintings of it a historical treasure. Although Catlin claimed to be disgusted by the self-mutilation and torture -- young men whose skin was pierced, were attached to ropes and suspended from the ceiling, had fingers amputated -- he missed little detail.

Yes, Catlin liked the Mandans. He wrote: "No set of men that ever I associated with have better hearts than the Mandan, and none are quicker to embrace and welcome the white man than they are -- none will press him closer to his bosom, that the pulsations of his heart might be felt, than a Mandan; and no man in any country will keep his word and guard his honor more closely."

Yet, the artist has trouble understanding that great heart in terms of what he saw in the O-kee-pa: "The shocking and disgusting custom that I have just described, sickens the heart and even the stomach of a traveler in the country, and he weeps for their ignorance -- he pities them with all his heart for their blindness, and laments that the light of civilization, of agriculture and religion cannot be extended to them, and that their hearts which are good enough, could not be turned to embrace something more rational and conducive to their true happiness."

Even that dichotomy did not dislodge Catlin's romantic view of the native as Noble Savage.


George Catlin was born July 26, 1792, fifth of 14 children, third of nine sons, at Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

When Catlin's mother was 7 years old, during the Wyoming (Penn.) Massacre of 1778, she was captured by Iroquois, but was released unharmed and impressed upon her son the decency of her treatment at the hands of the Iroquois. This may have served him well as he painted tribal members from coast to coast.

In 1817, when Catlin was 21, he entered Gould and Reeve Law School in Litchfield, Conn. He passed the bar two years later and practiced law for two years in Pennsylvania. Catlin was an indifferent lawyer, but an enthusiastic, if self-taught, painter.

When Catlin turned 24, he sold all his possessions save a rifle and fishing tackle so that he could become an artist, painting miniatures.

He progressed to portrait painting. Living first in Philadelphia and then New York, his subjects included Sam Houston, DeWitt Clinton and Dolly Madison.

Somewhere during this period, Catlin saw a delegation of Indians pass through Philadelphia, preparing to meet with the president. He noted their dignity and grace, and said he was determined to paint them.

But Catlin was no John Singer Sargent or N.C. Wyeth. A critic and Catlin contemporary, William Dunlap, thought the artist incompetent, and said Catlin's full-length portrait of DeWitt Clinton "the worst full-length which the city of New York possesses."

Yet, Ewers writes: "No other painter of the early West is so well presented in museum collections today."

William H. Truettner has written, in "The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery," the following about the artist's work:
"No matter what method the artist used to compose and paint his portraits, however, their ultimate success was determined by the drama of his palette. Traveling with only a dozen or so colors, and canvases he kept rolled in a large cylinder, he wasted no time with preliminary sketching. The outlines of the figure were placed on the canvas with broad, sepia strokes, and then the bust was modeled directly in warm earth tones. Depending on the time remaining, he would begin to fill in costume details with unmixed touches of vermilion, ultramarine, Prussian blue, and various ochres and umbers, until a scheme was established that would enable him to complete the portrait after he returned home.

Pigment was originally applied in thin strokes, so that it would dry quickly and not crack when the canvases were rerolled for storage, but once back in the studio Catlin filled in the broad, flat areas of costume with colors of sufficient strength to balance the details. Heads were finished with middle tones, but folds and contours of the robes and blankets were treated with primitive simplicity. An alternate slash of color barely provided the necessary dimension, and suggested the texture of the material. Smaller accessories were carefully gauged for contrast and pattern, the colors chosen, it would seem, as much for display as for an authentic record. Yet boldness of color was not a characteristic of Catlin's style before 1830, and his subsequent talent strikes one as genuinely inspired by his encounter with red men and their exotic costumes. To duplicate their appearance, he forged a palette that would have shocked most of his colleagues in New York, but which was, in fact, the most effective ingredient in his vivid portrayal of the Indian. What remains remarkable is how quickly this talent emerged. In the space of a few years he learned to balance raw tones and contrasting values with enough skill to impress one of the great critics of nineteenth-century France.

"Had Catlin worked consistently at his painting, had there been a clear development in his portrait style from 1832 to 1844 (when he painted the Iowa troupe in London), perhaps we could now assess his position among his peers with some confidence. As it stands, however, his interests were too broad to perfect any one of his talents, and such uneven results leave one at a loss, finally, to account for his ability.

"As a landscape painter, Catlin never reached a comparable level, although he produced much imaginative and original work during the 1830s. He ascended the Missouri with the full vocabulary of picturesque at his command, noting ruins, the gentle conformation of the green hills, and the sublime aspect of prairie fires. The artful view painting of Wall was soon modified, however, to describe the fascinating array of geological formations that appeared at every bend.

"In search of a means of capturing quickly the changing scenery, Catlin followed his portrait method, painting directly on small canvases (11x14 inches) from the deck of the steamboat or from the top of strategic bluffs on his way down river. Not even Cole or Doughty had ventured to paint from nature at that time, and the first of Durand's outdoor oil sketches dates from the mid-1840s.

"Yet, there was Catlin in 1832, stating that he had stopped many times along the banks of the Missouri, "clambered up their grassy and flower decked sides, and ä carefully traced and fastened them in colours on his canvass." While one must regard Catlin's claims with a skeptical eye, he repeats this story so often, even embellishing it with the struggles of Batiste and Bogard, the two voyageurs who carried his easel up the steepest bluffs, that one must accept or categorically doubt every page of 'Letters and Notes.'"

- Ken Rogers

Originally published under the title "First Artist of the Upper Missouri" in Lewis and Clark: Art of the Upper Missouri. (Ken Rogers, Tim Fought, editors. Jim Bridges, publisher. Bismarck: The Bismarck Tribune, 2000.) Used with permission. Catlin image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#15084).

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