George Catlin

The American painter George Catlin (1796-1872) made the most extensive and important record of life among Native Americans in North America through his drawings, paintings, and writings.

George Catlin was born on July 26, 1796, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His father, a retired lawyer, sent George to Connecticut to study law in 1817. Two years later he began practicing law in Wilkes-Barre. But he was more interested in painting, natural history, and Native Americans and by 1821 had taught himself portrait painting. In 1823 he painted miniatures in Philadelphia, and on seeing a delegation of Native Americans from the Far West, he determined to become their historian. He went to Albany, N.Y., to paint a portrait of Governor DeWitt Clinton, who later assisted Catlin in many ways. A frequent guest at the governor's mansion, Catlin met there Clara Bartlett Gregory, whom he married in 1828.

The famous Seneca orator, Red Jacket, was the first Native American to pose for Catlin. During the next 4 years he divided his time between commissioned portraits and studies of Native Americans. Finally he gave up his lucrative career as a portraitist and in 1830 went to St. Louis to study and depict Native Americans before they were changed by civilization. After 7 years of hard work under very difficult circumstances, he fulfilled his ambition. For the first 2 years he painted portraits of tribal delegates who came to St. Louis to talk with Gen. William Clark, governor of the vast Indian Territory (a close friend of the affable artist). In 1832 he traveled 2,000 miles up the Missouri River by steamboat, later making a trip to Texas and also to the upper Mississippi River. During these trips he worked at a frantic pace, so that he had about 500 portraits and sketches, a superb collection of Naive American artifacts, and notes and impressions of 38 different tribes to be used later in his lectures and books.

Catlin had early exhibitions of his work in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Buffalo. In 1836 he moved this material home to Albany, where he finished paintings and made additional ones from field sketches. He planned to hold an exhibition and lecture in New York and other big eastern cities and then take his unique collection to Washington, where he hoped it would become the nucleus of a great national museum financed by the U.S. government.

In New York City, "Catlin's Indian Gallery" in 1837 was a tremendous success. This was the first "Wild West" show—one of the most durable popular interests America was to experience. Catlin's message of the noble Native American corrupted by the white man disturbed many people. Although he used all his brilliance and charm on influential friends in Washington, Congress did not purchase his collection, which he exhibited in the capital in 1838. To his disappointment his Indian Gallery had little success in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, or in its second showing in New York.

In 1839 he took his gallery to London, where he again met with financial success. His wife and two daughters joined him. In 1841 he published his first book on Native Americns in North American. In 1845, when London tired of the show, he went to Paris, where his wife died. Except for a painting trip to South America from 1852 to 1857, financed by Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Catlin lived in Europe until his return to New York in 1870. He died on Dec. 23, 1872.


Further Reading on George Catlin

Catlin's most important work, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, which first appeared in London in 1841, has had numerous reprints and subsequent editions. Loyd Haberly, Pursuit of the Horizon (1948), is an interesting biography, and Harold McCracken, George Catlin and the Old Frontier (1959), is scholarly and well illustrated. Thomas Donaldson, The George Catlin Indian Gallery in the U.S. National Museum (1885), is the basic reference book on Catlin's work.