Magazine article Arts & Activities

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery

Magazine article Arts & Activities

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery

Article excerpt

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery is a revival of a spectacular exhibition of international significance first presented one and one-half centuries ago. It features more than 100 paintings and 11 American Indian artifacts Catlin collected while in Plains Indian country. This major presentation will travel to several art museums across the United States during the next two years.

Catlin is universally recognized and admired for his early documentation of American Indian life. The contents of this exhibition were drawn from the nearly complete surviving set of his first Indian Gallery, now considered one of the most important collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Smithsonian Institution premiered the show at its Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. in late 2003.

With a goal of "visiting every nation of Indians on the continent of North America," George Catlin, a lawyer turned artist, traveled thousands of miles following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition in a desire to record for posterity the "manners and customs" of American Indians. Between the years 1830 to 1836 Catlin visited dozens of tribes west of the Mississippi River from the region of present day North Dakota to Oklahoma. Following these six years of establishing an authentic account of the Indian in "the West," the artist devoted most of the remainder of his mature life to exhibiting the paintings he produced during and after this experience, and extensively lecturing on the subject both in the United States and abroad.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was born in Wilkes Barre, Pa., and received little formal education in studio art. Initially trained as a lawyer, Catlin practiced law briefly in rural Pennsylvania before moving to Philadelphia where he was ultimately inspired to become a painter of Indians after seeing a beautifully dressed group of visiting American Indians.

Catlin wrote "a delegation of some 10 or 15 noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the 'Far West' suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty ... tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter's palette!"

During the 1820s, Catlin supported himself by painting miniatures in Philadelphia, but he was unsuccessful in an attempt to launch a serious career as a portraitist in New York City. Despite this disappointment, he was elected to membership in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1824 and to the National Academy of Design soon thereafter.

Rather than making studio portraits of the occasional delegations of Indians that traveled east to meet with U.S. government representatives, Catlin yearned to visit these native cultures in their own environment. To do this, Catlin met with General William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became Catlin's mentor and teacher, and eventually escorted the artist to visit Plains tribes.

Between 1830 and 1836, Catlin devoted considerable energy to the depiction of the Indians of the Plains, Woodlands and Great Lakes. He sketched the Indians individually and in tribes, their activities and their environment. "It is for the character and preservation of these noble fellows that I am an enthusiast; and it is for these uncontaminated people that I would be willing Io devote the energies of my life," Catlin wrote.

Combined with his extensive personal journals and publications, the

hundreds of drawings, watercolors, and paintings that Catlin created influenced generations of later artists and firmly established a popular image of the West that persists even today. Although Catlin was not the first artist to explore and pictorially document the American West, he is generally credited as the first artist to develop a substantial group of works based on his experiences on location. …

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