• Notes From The Frontier

Magnificent Obsession: The Work of George Catlin


Native tribes inhabited our continent for thousands of years before whites ever set foot on its shores. But it is largely because of one man’s obsession that we have visual records of their rich lifestyles before the white juggernaut decimated their civilizations.


George Catlin was born in 1794 in Pennsylvania. As a young boy, he was fascinated by Native Americans, fueled by his mother’s stories of growing up on the frontier and being captured in 1778, along with her own mother, by an Iroquois tribe during a raid on the Susquehanna River. They were soon released unharmed. But the telling of the drama deeply affected the little boy and inflamed his imagination.

Already fascinated by Indian tribes, one day in 1805, nine-year-old George was exploring the woods along the Susquehanna River in southcentral New York when he came face-to-face with an Oneida Indian. The boy froze, terrified. The man in rawhide and moccasins towering over him lifted a hand in friendship. The boy never forgot the encounter and the man’s kindness. That experience shaped George Catlin’s lifework.


Lewis and Clark’s popular journal writings of their 1804-1806 expedition west and their many encounters with numerous native tribes, too, further fired his obsession. The fifth of 14 children, the young Catlin followed his father’s urgings to become a lawyer. But, even in the courtroom, George found himself doodling and sketching. In the end, the young man could not defy his own true calling: even though he had no formal training, he decided to become an artist. In Philadelphia, he established himself as a portrait painter and even landed famous commissions for Sam Houston and Dolley Madison. But, he was hungry for a deeper purpose.

“My mind was continually reaching for some branch or enterprise of the art, on which to devote a whole lifetime of enthusiasm,” he wrote in his memoirs. He found it around 1828, when a delegation of Indians stopped in Philadelphia en route to Washington, D.C. He was mesmerized by “their classic beauty” and felt that detrimental aspects of “civilization”—particularly whiskey and smallpox—were wiping them out. He soon vowed that “nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.”


He had just recently married Clara Gregory, the daughter of a prominent Albany, New York family, but she understood his obsession. He packed up his paints in 1830, left his new wife and headed west. Catlin took the train west to St. Louis, which at the time, was the far edge of “civilization.” Beyond was raw frontier. There he wrangled a meeting with one of his heroes, General William Clark, who had ventured on the Lewis and Clark Expedition 25 years before. Clark was now the government’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Western tribes. It was that fateful meeting that would set Catlin on his path as the world’s foremost chronicler of Native American tribes in North America.


Catlin asked for Clark’s help in touring western tribes and showed him his portraits. But it was Catlin’s passion that convinced Clark of the young man’s conviction. That summer, the two traveled 400 miles up the Mississippi River to Fort Crawford, where several tribes—the Sauk, Fox and Sioux among them—were having a council. Catlin was finally in his element! He took out his brushes and stayed in the West six years, painting nearly 500 portraits, landscapes, and ritual scenes of Native American hunting, dancing, warring, and meeting in tribal councils.


In his six years on the frontier, Catlin survived disease and fever that killed his military escorts. In spring 1832, he took the steamboat, Yellowstone, on a 2,000-mile journey up the Missouri River to reaches few whites had ever seen. He was hypnotized by the “soul-melting scenery” and great herds of buffalo, antelope and elk on “a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red.” Working feverishly, he could not capture scenes fast enough on his canvases. In three months, he executed nearly 150 paintings and sketches, leaving the details and colors to be filled in later. His paintings captured the drama of Native life: buffalo hunts and fights with grizzly bears, stampedes, wars between tribes, warriors on mighty warhorses, buffalo being hunted by wolf packs, Indian fleeing tornadoes, called “storm horses,” rituals, dancing and daily life, not to mention exquisitely detailed depictions of tribal regalia.


In July of 1832, he observed the excruciating fertility ritual of the Mandan tribe, the O-kee-pa, near what is today Bismarck, North Dakota. Young men were suspended from the tops of medicine lodges by ropes skewed through their chests to test their manhood. Five years later, when Catlin displayed his paintings in eastern cities, he was derided with skepticism by critics. One art journal wrote: “The scenes described by Catlin existed almost entirely in the fertile imagination of that gentleman.” Since very few whites had witnessed such rituals, Catlin was unable to corroborate his observations. Not long after his visits, smallpox all but wiped out the Mandan. But modern research would confirm his shocking illustrations.


Catlin’s deep obsession with Native culture verged often on voyeurism and he was sometimes accused of exploiting Indians for his own gratification and art. In 1836, despite protests of Sioux elders, Catlin visiting a sacred, red-stone quarry in what is today southwestern Minnesota where the Sioux found their ceremonial pipes. No Indian would escort him, so Catlin traveled 360 miles round-trip on horseback. The red pipestone there today is named “catlinite” after him. He wrote magically of his trip: “Man feels here the thrilling sensation, the force of illimitable freedom. There is poetry in the very air of this place.”


His conflict with Sioux elders notwithstanding, Catlin maintained friendly relations with his Native hosts, who escorted him through hostile tribes and dangerous terrain, invited him to smoke in their lodges and feast on dog meat, beaver tail and buffalo tongue.


“No Indian ever betrayed me, struck me with a blow, or stole from me a shilling’s worth of my property...,” he wrote. By 1836, his last year in the West, Catlin had visited 48 tribes. He would spend the rest of his life trying to market his work to white society, an ambition that would take him to the brink of ruin.


In 1837, Catlin displayed his mind-boggling collection of art in New York, salon-style, stacked floor to ceiling on the walls. Catlin called his gallery a “collection of Nature’s dignitaries.” And dignified they were, in spectacular regalia and colors so vivid as to defy the imagination. White audiences marveled at the Native use of animal pelts, feathers, plants and shells, the glorious beadwork, the fringed and dyed leathers of Native dress, the headdresses that rivaled the jeweled crowns of any European royalty, garb as glorious as any raiment of white nobility.


Among one of Catlin’s most popular portraits was the stately Chief Kee-o-kuk of the Sauk and Fox, proudly holding his tomahawk like a scepter. Another chieftain, La-dóo-ke-a (Buffalo Bull), a Pawnee warrior, posed commandingly in full ceremonial paint. Catlin’s landscapes also captured the vastness and wildness of the frontier with its crystal rivers, virgin forests, and rolling hills in panoramic splendor almost as seen from a mountaintop.


On September 23, 1837, the New York Commercial Advertiser announced Catlin’s exhibit of Indian portraits: “Splendid Costumes—Paintings of their villages—Dances—Buffalo Hunts—Religious Ceremonies, etc.” The New York City exhibition was a great success. Then Catlin took it to cities along the East Coast. But after a year, attendance began to dwindle, and Catlin fell on hard times. In 1837, he tried to sell his gallery to the federal government, but Congress was reticent. So, he sailed to England, now with his entire gallery, a buffalo-hide tepee, two live bears, and other props.


In London, Brussels, and at the Louvre in Paris, his “Wild West” show was a wild success. Then he hired local actors in feathers and war paint to pose in “tableaux vivants.” He eventually hired actual Indians, 21 Ojibwe and 14 Iowa, who toured Europe with him, reenacting hunts, dances, and even scalpings. In 1843, Catlin was presented to Queen Victoria in London, then two years later, to King Louis-Philippe in France. But the costs of renting halls, transporting eight tons of paintings and artifacts, and providing for his Indian entourage ran the artist into debt.


Then greater tragedy befell him. In 1845, in Paris, his devoted wife, Clara, died of pneumonia. Then, when the Ojibwe got smallpox, two died and the rest returned to the plains. The next year his 3-year-old son, George, died of typhoid.


In 1848, Catlin returned to London in hopes of installing his gallery on a ship—a floating “Museum of Mankind”—that would tour seaports around the globe. But that dream, too, fizzled. In 1852, his funds exhausted, the 56-year-old Catlin was thrown into a London debtor’s prison.


Desperate, he again tried to sell his gallery to the U.S. government. Senator Daniel Webster came to his support and called his grand collection “more important to us than the ascertaining of the South Pole, or anything that can be discovered in the Dead Sea...” But others in Congress thought the price too steep, even when Catlin lowered it from $65,000 to $25,000. Finally, late that summer, Joseph Harrison, a wealthy Pennsylvania railroad tycoon paid Catlin’s debts, acquired his gallery for $20,000 and shipped it from London to Philadelphia.


From 1852 to 1860, Catlin flitted from Europe, the Pacific Northwest to South and Central America painting Indians from the Amazon to Patagonia, trying to reconstitute his career. By 1870 Catlin had completed 300 paintings of South American Indians and had re-created from sketches some 300 copies of his original Indian Gallery portraits. “Now I am George Catlin again,” he wrote his brother just before returning to America in 1870. He exhibited his works in 1871 in New York City, then at the Smithsonian Institution later that year.



Although Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry did not regard Catlin’s work as serious art but in a primitive vein, he needed them: a fire had just destroyed most of the Smithsonian’s collection of Indian paintings by John Mix Stanley and Charles Bird King. Henry offered Catlin support and a home at the Smithsonian Castle, where he lived for nine months, a failing artist in his mid-70s, white-bearded, walking bent-over with a cane, and destitute. In November 1872, Catlin left Washington to be with his daughters in New Jersey. He died there two months later at age 76. Among his final words to his daughters were, “What will happen to my gallery?” 


He died not knowing that he would someday come to be regarded as America’s foremost artist of Native Americans and that the bulk of his works would become part of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art.


George Catlin summarized the Native American as "an honest, hospitable, faithful, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless--yet honourable, contemplative and religious being." Not only did he capture Native Americans in their natural surroundings and magnificent regalia, he fed white civilizations’ growing fascination with Natives and their “vanishing” cultures. His work embodies vital authenticity, as well as great admiration and empathy. Perhaps more than any other artist or writer, he helped to change the perception of Native Americans in white culture in the 1800s.


“Art may mourn when these people are swept from the earth,” Catlin wrote, “and the artists of future ages may look in vain for another race so picturesque in their costumes, their weapons, their colours, their manly games, and their chase.”


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted December 28, 2019

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  • Notes From the Frontier