Published: February 3, 2004
More than just the story of a single artist, the special exhibition “George Catlin and His Indian Gallery,” on view February 7-April 18, 2004, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art speaks to the encounter of two cultures in North America.
The exhibition features more than 120 works from a crown jewel in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection: the nearly complete surviving set of Catlin’s first Indian Gallery, painted in the 1830s. Besides oil paintings, a group of American Indian objects showing the artist as collector will be on view, as will a selection of books Catlin authored. After opening in Kansas City, “George Catlin and His Indian Gallery” travels to Los Angeles, Houston and New York to celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06.
“George Catlin and His Indian Gallery” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The exhibition is installed chronologically. It begins with the story of Catlin’s early work in Philadelphia and continues through his epic journeys across the Plains following the Lewis and Clark trail, and later, to the near-Southwest with military excursions. The final sections of the show detail Catlin’s exhibitions, publications and lifelong promotion of his work, as well as his relationship with the Smithsonian Institution.
Catlin (1796-1872), a lawyer turned painter, decided in the 1820s that he would make it his life’s work to record the life and culture of American Indians living on the Plains.
In 1830, Catlin visited General William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory, superintendent of Indian affairs in St Louis and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became Catlin’s mentor, showing him his Indian museum, introducing him to the American Fur Trading Co, and taking him to visit Plains tribes.
In 1832, Catlin made an epic journey that stretched more than 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River. St Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for the five trips he took from 1830 to 1836, eventually visiting 50 tribes.
Catlin’s quest turned into a lifelong obsession that shaped his subsequent travels and the course of his life. In pursuit of his goals, this artist also became an explorer, historian, anthropologist, geologist, collector, journalist, author, lecturer and promoter.
Catlin’s dream was to sell his “Indian Gallery” to the US government so his life’s work would be preserved intact. After several failed attempts to persuade various officials, he toured with it in Europe in the 1840s, where he often featured Native Americans dancing, creating the earliest version of what later would become the Wild West Show.
Tragically, Catlin was forced to sell the original “Indian Gallery” in 1852 due to personal debts. He spent the final 20 years of his life trying to recreate his collection.
In 1872, Catlin came to Washington at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian “Castle.” A Philadelphia collector’s widow donated the original “Indian Gallery” – more than 500 works – to the Smithsonian in 1879.
Free programs including lectures, gallery talks and a special performance of American Indian stories and music, will accompany the exhibition.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is at 4525 Oak Street. For information, 816-561-4000 or www.nelson-atkins.org.
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