The year 1826 was a big one in the life of 30-year-old George Catlin. Three years earlier he had sold his law books and abandoned a promising career in law to devote himself to art. He painted portraits, often in miniature, in Philadelphia. Sometimes he portrayed the great: Catlin's portrait of Sam Houston is the best image extant of the famous Texas hero.
But young artists cut no big figure among the many talented men and women of America's cultural capital, which Philadelphia was at the time, and by Catlin's own admission he lacked motivation. He didn't know what he wanted to do. No great artistic theme had presented itself to lift him out of the mundane career that now seemed his lot.
But then in 1826, on the steps of Charles Willson Peale's museum at Philosophical Hall in Philadelphia, Catlin encountered a group of American Indians fresh from the wilderness who were on a tour of the East that eventually would take them to Washington, and his life was changed forever.
This group numbered between 10 and 15 "noble and dignified-looking Indians" he later recalled, "arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty--with shield and helmet,--with tunic and manteau,--tinted and tasseled off, exactly," he could not resist adding, "for the painter's palette!"
Here was the great theme Catlin had been seeking. "In silent and stoic dignity, these lords of the forest strutted about the city for a few days, wrapped in their pictured robes, with their brows plumed with the quills of the war-eagle, attracting the gaze and admiration of all who beheld them."
Out of that encounter an ambitious project began to take hold of Catlin's mind, and he could not--nor did he want to--shake it off. "I have designed to visit every tribe of Indians on the continent, if my life should be spared," he declared once he had a clearer notion of what his goal would be, "for the purpose of procuring the portraits of distinguished Indians, of both sexes in each tribe" and to paint their "domestic habits," games, mysteries and religious ceremonies. And he would paint these portraits and scenes before the Indians disappeared from the world, which he feared they would, perhaps in a short time.
It was a tremendous goal, 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 four trips to the West during the 1830s he did make it to nearly 50 tribes mostly in what today is North and South Dakota, Minnesota and the areas through which the Missouri River runs. Their total populations numbered 400,000, according to Catlin's own estimation. It was out of these experiences that he left America an incomparable legacy of portraits of Indian chiefs, braves and women, and of the daily lives they led.
He also painted dramatic Western landscapes--particularly of the prairie, whose flatness and depth impressed him, and the areas adjacent to the Missouri River, which was his gateway westward. He did magnificent paintings of the animals he observed. Above all were the buffalo, but also the grizzly bears and wild Indian horses. And he produced stunning images of the perils of life on the Great Plains, such as prairie fires from which he shows man and beast alike fleeing in terror. In later life, he made trips to South America to observe the Indians there.
Now, for the first time in more than a century, the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in Washington is showing more than 400 of Catlin's great works and many of the Indian artifacts he collected on his trips out West. It's an exhibition that's been five years in the making, Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, tells INSIGHT. And it's a show that's called upon the expertise not only of her own staff and that of other Smithsonian divisions such as the National Museum of American History, but also that of what will be the Smithsonian's newest addition, the National Museum of the American Indian, to be opened in 2004. …