Sunday, July 26, 2020

Native People and Culture Through White Eyes—The Art of George Catlin

George Catlin captured Native American culture just before it was wiped away like this council of Northern Plains Indians and tepee village.  Amazing detail in costume, decoration on the tepee, cultural symbols such as the central tribal staff and bundles, smoking, and the scalps hanging from the tripod.  

When George Catlin was born on a farm near Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on July 26, 1796 the area was only a couple of generations removed from being on the frontier.  During the American Revolution it had been subject to raids by native tribes allied with the British.  His own mother had been taken hostage on such foray and she was held for a while in captivity.  Like many female captives she was apparently well treated and grew sympathetic to the tribe that held her until she was ransomed.  Her tales of that experience and the yarns of old timers set fire to the imagination of the  young boy with an artistic bent.
As he roamed the woods, streams, and fields hunting and fishing he began to search for and collect arrowheads and other artifacts of the now vanished tribes that once roamed the same ground.  While visiting Philadelphia with his father he witnessed the colorful array of a large delegation of trans-Mississippi chiefs and warriors on their way to a meeting with President Thomas Jefferson in Washington.  After reading accounts of the Western explorations of Lewis and Clark, who he grew to idolize, young George became determined to somehow go West and see the tribes for himself.
Meanwhile he set himself on becoming an artist.  The Peales of Philadelphia, the family of the foremost painters of the young Republic, took an interest in the talented lad and mentored him. Charles Wilson Peale also shared his enthusiasm for Native culture and his collection of artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark. 

Catlin--early work,  a lithograph of Buffalo Harbor.
Peale recognized the young artist’s sharp eye for detail and meticulous draftsmanship.  After Catlin began to specialize in quality engravings, Peale recommended him for a prestigious project—a documentary volume on the route of the Erie Canal, other New York water ways, the Niagara escarpment, and the fledgling city of Buffalo.  Several of his plates were included in the first American book to include lithography, Cadwallader D. Colden’s Memoir, Prepared at the Request of a Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York, and Presented to the Mayor of the City, at the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals, published in 1825.
Three years later while traveling in Upstate New York and preparing more of the landscape prints for which he was becoming know, Catlin met Clara Bartlett Gregory in Albany and married her the same year.  She was evidently devoted to her husband and became the mother to four of his children despite his frequent long absences. 
The first of those absences came with a dream opportunity—to accompany his hero General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the new Bureau of Indian Affairs in the War Department, as the official artist on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into Native American territory in 1830.  On that trip into what is now Minnesota Catlin for the first time encountered tribes with little previous contact with Europeans other than trading in furs.  He began making the detailed sketches or cartoons which he would use later in his studio to execute oil paintings.  He had found his life calling.

From the first trip with William Clark--Blood chief Buffalo Bull's Back Fat.
Catlin and his family would base themselves in St. Louis for the next six years and he would make a total of five extended expeditions during which time he would visit and document more than 50 tribes just before their way of life would vanish forever and their cultures became corrupted where they were not destroyed.  On one of these trips the dutiful Clara accompanied him at least part way.
His most important and productive trip came in 1832 when ascended the Missouri River more than 1850 miles to the Fort Union Trading Post near what is now the North Dakota-Montana border.  He spent weeks among 18 tribes including the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south and the Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet to the north.  He sketched portraits, costume studies, village life, hunting scenes, and rituals.  He captured the powerful Mandan, the most significant of the northern plains tribes and Lewis’ and Clark’s hosts during their first winter just before they were virtually wiped out by a small pox epidemic caused by infected blankets traded to them.  That included a depiction of the sun dance in which warriors would hang from the ceremonial lodge poles with thongs attached to skewers piercing their chest muscles while they had visions.  

Mandan Sun Dance Lodge.

Catlin returned to the East with his wife in 1838 and completed hundreds of paintings which he assembled into the Indian Gallery which he took on a tour of principle cities.  The paintings were displayed in the salon style of the day occupying walls floor to ceiling.  The artist would also lecture on his adventures and on tribal customs and display objects from his extensive artifact collection.  The main source of revenue was the sale of a detailed and illustrated catalogue from which visitors could identify each painting from the number attached to it and read details about the subject.
Despite strong notices in the press the tour, which was Catlin’s only source of income, struggled from the expense of the tour, rental cost exhibit space, and most of all the high cost of the catalogue which most viewers could not afford to purchase. Although he had numerous offers to buy individual works, Catlin was desperate to keep the collection together and to finance subsequent trips to the Arkansas, Red, and Mississippi Rivers; and to Florida and the Great Lakes region.  Eventually he had more than 500 paintings in the Indian Gallery.

George Catlin by William Fisk.  The artist often wore the shirts and other clothing from his collection of Native outfits and artifacts.

In 1839 he had better luck taking the Indian Gallery on a tour of European capitals where it was a sensation.  The pictures struck a chord with a population already enamored with the Romantic vision of the Noble Savage as an innocent creature of Nature and primed by the popularity of James Fennimore Cooper’s Leather Stocking Tales and other American books.  A French critic gushed, “He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness.”
The European triumph proved to be only a temporary respite from financial desperation, however.
To avoid selling the work piecemeal and to support his family Catlin tried repeatedly to sell the collection intact to Congress.  That then notoriously parsimonious body refused every plea to preserve the collection as an irreplaceable national treasure. 

One of the most famous images--Chief Four Bears of the Mandan in all of his magnificence.
He derived some income from the publication of a series of books beginning with Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, in two volumes, with approximately 300 engravings, the source of the images the contemporary American public is most familiar with in 1841.  Three years later he published Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio with 25 plates suitable for framing
Through the 1840’s Catlin was based largely in Europe where wealthy patrons could afford his expensive books and plates.  But tragedy struck in 1845 in Paris when his wife Clara and youngest son died of some infectious disease.  On his return to the states Catlin unsuccessfully published a collection of pictures from those years, Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe.  What interest the American buying public had in Catlin was limited to his work as an Indian iconographer.  Unfortunately they were still not interested enough in that either to support him.

Clara Catlin circa 1840 by George Linen
In 1852 in order to fend off clamoring creditors and finance further explorations and work Catlin sold the now 607 paintings in the Indian Gallery to industrialist Joseph Harrison who promised not to break the collection up and to hold it in trust until Catlin could re-purchase it.  He stored the collection in one of his Philadelphia factories where they were removed from public view for years.   Unfortunately the artist could never redeem his work.
Instead he began to painstakingly duplicate as many of the paintings as possible using his original cartoon sketches, notes, and his own memory. Over 20 years he re-created more than 400 of them.  These paintings, known as the Cartoon Collection are not as highly prized today as the originals but do sometimes turn up for private sale.

Dramatic action in Attacking the Grizzly

Catlin also continued to travel and do new work when possible.  He toured the American South West, Central and South America as well as returning to the Great Plains where he captured the Sioux, Cheyenne, and the Arapaho and the environs of Fort Laramie as the Oregon Trail encroached on tribal lands.  All of this was documented in Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes published in 1868.  Work on the Southwest tribes was issued separately.  A final posthumous volume, My Life among the Indians issued his unpublished material in 1908 edited by N. G. Humphreys.
During the final years of his life, Catlin was evidently progressively more eccentric.  While working in Brazil wrote and published Shut Your Mouth a lengthy essay suggesting that people who are slack jawed, mouth breathers or just talk too much are apt suffer to any number of physical ailments.  His prescription to “keep your mouth shut” somehow went through eight editions showing that American taste runs more to crack-pot quackery than anthropological art.
In 1872, sick and broke the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution invited Catlin to make use of studio space in the museum Castle in Washington.  It was there that the artist did his final work before dying in Jersey City, New Jersey on December 23, 1872 at the age of 76.

 Chief Osceola, bane of he U.S. Army Regular Dragoons in the Florida Seminole Wars.
The Smithsonian did end up with Catlin’s original Indian Gallery in 1879 when Joseph Harrison’s widow donated the whole collection to the museum.  The Gallery is now a centerpiece of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Other significant collections of Catlin’s vast output and associated material include the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 700 sketches at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City;  artifacts in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collections; and  239 of illustrations of  North and South American Indians and other illustrative and manuscript material in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
Of course no illustrated history of the American West, or study of Native Americans in books, articles, or TV documentaries is complete without illustrations from the prolific George Catlin.

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