Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Rising from the Stain on a Painter's Palette": George Catlin's Picturesque and the Legibility of Seminole Removal

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Rising from the Stain on a Painter's Palette": George Catlin's Picturesque and the Legibility of Seminole Removal

Article excerpt

This article analyzes Catlin's picturesque aesthetic as a means of rationalizing Seminole removal from Florida. Published in 1841, Catlin's two-volume Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians amassed fifty-eight letters and over 300 paintings collected during "Eight Years' Travel amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America." Contemporaneous to Catlin's travel, federal troops and local militia enforced the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It is not by chance that the two volumes are prefaced by maps--one before and one after the removals of Indian peoples west of the Mississippi to Indian Territory. Today, Catlin's sympathetic rendering of Osceola and other Seminoles are most instructive in demonstrating both the imperial frame of national American exceptionalism as well as the picturesque balance of interdependent North, South, and West regionalisms on which the imagining of national Union relied in the years before the Civil War.

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George Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, Written during Eight Years' Travel (1832-39) amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America (1841) demonstrates that the idea of the picturesque not only varies historically but teases the very dimensions of space, place, and historical time on which national identifications depend. In the following essay, I focus on Catlin's portrait of Osceola and other Seminole Indians to understand the relationship between Catlin's picturesque and federal policies of Indian Removal. Catlin's ekphrastic restlessness is perhaps most instructive in its failure to stabilize a national vision--a failure that enables apprehension of both the imperial frame of national American exceptionalism as well as the fragile balance of interdependent North, South, and West regionalisms on which the imagining of national Union relied in the decades before the Civil War.

An author, artist, proto-anthropologist, and enterprising showman, Catlin was born 1796 in Wilkes Barres, Pennsylvania. He trained to be a lawyer but his love of art and rustic exertion emboldened his desire to pursue painting. He frustrated his family's expectations by quitting the legal profession and moving to Philadelphia in 1821 to become a portrait artist. His early career was moderately successful if personally unsatisfying, including portraits of Timothy Pickering, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton, a standing portrait of General William Clark (1830), and the ambitious if awkward Virginia Constitutional Convention (1830). As Brian Dippie notes in Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (1990), "Catlin had shown no special interest in Indian subjects" (11) until around 1828 when, according to Catlin, "a delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the Far West, suddenly arrived in [Philadelphia], arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty,--with shield and helmet,--with tunic and manteau,--tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter's pallet" (1:2). In 1830, Catlin catapulted out of his professional malaise, heading West to confer with General William Clark in St. Louis and to cultivate an aesthetic investment in frontier painting with which he hoped to distinguish himself as an artist.

Throughout his career, Catlin hoped for governmental funding that never materialized. He financed his travels through "the West" with money generated from portraiture and his many frontier letters published and republished throughout the 1830s in newspapers such as the Commercial Advertiser in New York, the Daily Gazette in Cincinnati, the Missouri Republican in St. Louis, and many others (see Dippie 531). During his travels, he collected thousands of artifacts to compose his "Gallery unique, for the use and instruction of future ages" (1:3; original emphasis). By 1839, having often rendered six pictures a day at a "difficult (almost cruel rate)" for his health (2:217; original emphasis), Catlin estimated a collection of:

   310 portraits in oil . … 
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