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Catlin and the Indians

By Goode, Stephen | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Catlin and the Indians


Goode, Stephen, The World and I


George Catlin visited American Indian tribes of the Great Plains during the 1830s to capture in paint images of the people and their way of life before it was too late. Now his monumental Indian Gallery can again be seen.

The year 1828 was a momentous one in the life of George Catlin. Seven years earlier, at the age of twenty-five, he had sold his law books and said good-bye to a promising law career to devote himself to his true love, art. Moving to Philadelphia and then New York, the young artist who dreamed of becoming a famous history painter found himself instead making a modest living painting portraits, often in miniature. Occasionally he portrayed the great: his portrait of Sam Houston is regarded by many as the finest image extant of the famous Texas hero.

But the ambitious and largely self-taught artist cut no big figure among his many talented colleagues, and by his own admission he lacked motivation. Where was the animating purpose, the great artistic theme that could lift his career out of the mundane?

Then in 1828, on a visit to Philadelphia, Catlin encountered a delegation of Native Americans fresh from the wilds of the West who were on a tour that would eventually take them to Washington. The group numbered between ten and fifteen "noble and dignified looking Indians," the artist later recalled, "arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty,--with shield and helmet,--with tunic and manteau,--tinted and tasselled off, exactly for the painter's palette!" Catlin's life was changed forever.

Out of that encounter, an ambitious project formed in Catlin's mind. "I have designed to visit every tribe of Indians on the Continent, if my life should be spared," he declared. His goal was to portray distinguished individuals of each tribe and the domestic habits, games, and religious ceremonies of the Indian people. He would strive to do this before the Indians disappeared from the world, which he feared could happen in a short time.

It was a tremendous undertaking, and Catlin failed in part: he didn't make it to every tribe in America, a task that would have taken far more time and money than he had available to him. But on his trips to the West during the 1830s, he visited nearly fifty tribes, mostly in what is today North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and areas through which the Missouri River runs. According to Catlin's own estimation, the total native population in these parts numbered four hundred thousand. He would have many extraordinary experiences in his life-- including three expeditions to South America--but none would compare to his four western journeys of the 1830s, and none would be even remotely as productive.

From these and other visits to the West, Catlin left America an incomparable legacy of portraits of Indian chiefs, braves, and women, and depictions of Indian life. He also painted striking landscapes. Widely reproduced in lithographs throughout the nineteenth century, Catlin's Indian portraits and landscapes became familiar images to Americans and Europeans. In his own words, Catlin described the wilderness he painted as "a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red."

He also did widely admired paintings of the wild animals he observed. He loved to paint the buffalo--his Dying Buffalo, Shot With An Arrow (1832-33) is among his most powerful paintings. He also chose grizzly bears and wild Indian horses as his subjects, all animals that had gained legendary status as symbols of the wildness of the West. In addition, he made dramatic images of the perils of life on the Great Plains, such as Prairie Meadows Burning (1832), in which man and beast flee in terror from the smoke-blasted, fiery horizon.

All of these paintings were made in a rough-hewn style closer to that found in naive American art than in the more polished canvases of European or European-trained artists.

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