Published: November 12, 2002
By Stephen May
WASHINGTON, D.C. – “If my life be spared, nothing will stop me short of visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America.” So declared George Catlin (1796-1872) in defining the mission and the course of his artistic career.
In pursuit of his dream, he became the first artist to travel West to depict the “manners and customs” of America’s Indians. The resulting paintings, assembled in his “Indian Gallery,” constituted an unparalleled archive of historical and cultural significance, wowing audiences on tour then and now. In one of the most ambitious and successful artistic projects in American art history — comparable to John James Audubon’s documentation of the birds of North America — Catlin contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the American frontier and of the cultures of the Native Americans who lived there.
In addition to requiring courage, dedication and perseverance, Catlin’s achievement resulted from significant artistic talent, often employed under difficult circumstances where time was of the essence. He excelled particularly in capturing for posterity Native American faces in ways that conveyed their dignity and individuality. Catlin’s “Indians became real people, recognizable as individuals, rather than stock characters so common in paintings of ‘the red man,'” western art historian Royal B. Hassrick once wrote. The ethnological importance of Catlin’s likenesses should not obscure their qualities as well-painted pictures.
Acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1879, Catlin’s Native American paintings constitute a crown jewel in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s (SAAM) collection. “,” the most comprehensive display of the artist’s work in more than a century, is on view at the museum’s Renwick Gallery through January 19. Numerous artifacts spread throughout the exhibition showcase pertinent objects Catlin acquired on his journeys through Indian lands. The show is accompanied by an excellent catalog.
The exhibition, comprising more than 400 objects, was organized by SAAM Deputy Chief Curator George Gurney, with assistance from colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian. It is supported by contributions from numerous foundations and individuals. “” is presented under the Honorary Patronage of the President of the United States George W. Bush and Mrs Laura Bush.
Celebrating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, some 120 paintings and artifacts from the exhibition will travel to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (February 7 through April 18, 2004); the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles (May 9 through August 4, 2004); and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 19, 2004, through January 19, 2005).
The Catlin trove, particularly as displayed in the Renwick Gallery spaces, is fascinating and rewarding — and not to be missed. It begins on the first floor with “Catlin in America,” featuring examples of the artist’s early work and material from his epic treks across the Plains.
To place Catlin’s journeys in perspective, there is a marvelous, multiscreen “surround video” installation wrapping around a gallery. It offers changing, panoramic views of what Catlin might have seen traveling on the Missouri River in the 1830s, ranging from thundering herds of buffalo to various animals to prairie fires to seas of waving grass to awesome daytime and nocturnal landscapes.
Ascending the long, wide stairs to the Grand Salon on the second floor, visitors encounter a magnificent sight: an enormous space filled with Catlin paintings hung floor-to-ceiling in a way that recalls the Indian Gallery. Talk about a wealth of riches! This section, “Catlin in Europe,” includes 230 paintings, archival materials, a 24-foot-high canvas tipi and three epic paintings of the American West by Thomas Moran.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., Catlin seemed destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a lawyer. His father, who served in the American Revolution, was active in local politics, but never gained the higher positions he sought.
As a youngster, Catlin grew up fascinated by tales of the frontier, collected arrowheads and Indian relics, and preferred hunting and fishing to schoolwork. He also developed an interest in art — for “dabblings with the brush,” as he put it.
In deference to his father’s wishes, Catlin read law for two years under Judge Topping Reeves and James Gould in Litchfield, Conn. After admission to the bar, he set up practice in Lucerne, Penn. Catlin gave up his law practice after several years, however, and set out to be an artist in Philadelphia. His first studio was on Walnut Street.
Although self-taught and lacking a patron, Catlin achieved much success as a painter of portraits, especially miniatures. The current exhibition begins with several somewhat awkward early likenesses and a fascinating “Bird’s-eye View of Niagara Falls,” 1827, depicting as though viewed from a hovering helicopter.
He seems likely to have been influenced by the presence in the City of Brotherly Love of talented members of the Peale family and particularly portraitist Thomas Sully. Catlin’s recognition grew with his election as a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the newly launched National Academy of Design.
In the early 1820s young Catlin witnessed a life-changing sight. As he later recalled, “a delegation of some 10 or 15 noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the ‘Far West,’ suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped with all their classic beauty…tinted and tasseled off, exactly for the painter’s palette!” The idea of making Native Americans subjects for his brush was planted, his mission in life launched.
In carrying out his mission, Catlin’s objectives were both altruistic — to record for future generations the faces, appearance and customs of America’s Indians — and practical — he had to make a living from his art. The former required a high degree of artistic accomplishments, the latter called for entrepreneurship and showmanship.
As Brian W. Dipple observes in his catalog essay, “Catlin’s showmanship has long been pitted against his artistry, the one seen as compromising the other, a view shared by critics, past and present.” In real life terms, nonetheless, Catlin had “to prove that art could be both practical and profitable.”
Catlin’s mission was reminiscent of Audubon’s audacious quest, launched in 1820, to observe, paint watercolors of and print books illustrating all the birds of North America. Audubon persevered through thick and thin and succeeded brilliantly, as did Catlin.
The lawyer-turned-artist actually had some experience painting Indian portraits before beginning his ambitious project. While journeying around western New York in the late 1820s, he created a likeness of Red Jacket, the famed Seneca orator, and depicted Iroquois, Mohegans and an Ottawa Indian. In 1828 he did several amateurish full-length portraits of members of Indian tribes visiting Washington.
Catlin’s plans to paint Indian subjects were derided by his friends, but he was not deterred. Setting out for the West in 1830, he vowed to bring “home faithful portraits of…principal personages from each tribe, views of their villages, games, etc, and full notes on their character and history.” He also announced his intention to procure Indian costumes, weapons and artifacts, and “to perpetuate them in a Gallery unique for the use and instruction of future ages.”
Arriving in St Louis he sought the aid of General William Clark, famed leader of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition that explored the newly acquired lands in the Louisiana Purchase. Now Superintendent of Indian Affairs and Governor of the Missouri Territory, Clark shows Catlin his Indian museum and took the young artist to visit Plains tribes. From his St Louis base, between 1830 and 1836, Catlin made five trips, eventually visiting 50 tribes.
Traveling on the steamboat Yellowstone, which served trading posts of the American Fur Company, in 1832 he covered more than 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River. Catlin recorded his observations of the scenery in a series of small landscapes, like “River Bluffs, 1320 Miles Above St Louis” (1832), in which a solitary Indian on a hill surveys a dreamy view of green, sunlit bluffs along the river.
In “‘Brick Kilns,’ Clay Bluffs 1900 Miles Above St Louis,” 1832, he recorded the cone-shaped, colorfully striated bluffs, formed on clay banks eroded by the river. It is a beautiful image.
While visiting 18 tribes, including the Pawnee, Omaha and Ponca in the south, and the Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, Blackfeet and Mandan to the north, Catlin created scores of portraits. His unfinished likeness, “La-doo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, A Grand Pawnee Warrior,” 1832, offers insights into the artist’s working methods when speed was essential. Here, Catlin labored on site on the sitter’s face and the image of a buffalo painted on his chest, leaving details of the body and costume to be completed in his urban studio.
The masterpiece of that year, and indeed, the poster man for the exhibition, is a magnificent, commanding portrait of “Stu-mick-o-sucks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe,” 1832. The handsome, proud and dignified 50-year-old Blackfoot chief, his stern, red-painted visage exuding power, was from a tribe of northern Plains Indians that Catlin felt were the least corrupted by outsiders. The likeness was displayed, to favorable notice, in the Paris Salon of 1846.
Another standout, “Tis-se-wood-na-tis, She Who Bathes Her Knees, Wife of the Chief,” 1832, depicts a handsome young woman whose face is painted with various red symbols. She wears an elegant white sheepskin dress festooned with quills and Venetian trade beads in geometric designs for which the Cheyenne were renowned.
Catlin was moved by his encounters with the Mandans, an agricultural and buffalo-hunting tribe living in earth lodges along the Missouri in what is now North Dakota. During two weeks in their midst, he painted not only portraits, but memorable scenes of rituals and village life. This was fortunate, because within a few years the entire tribe was virtually wiped out by a smallpox epidemic.
One of his most popular images was that of “Mah-to-toh-pa, Four Bears, Second Chief, in Full Dress,” 1832, striking a stalwart, regal pose, garbed in embroidered deerskin leggings, a shirt decorated with pictographs of his war feats, and a headdress of eagle feathers and ermine crowned with buffalo horns. “No tragedian,” Catlin wrote, “ever trod the steps, nor gladiator ever entered the Roman Forum, with more grace and manly dignity” than did Four Bears when he arrived for his posing session. The 29- by 24-inch oil on canvas was much admired by viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. According to art historian Joan Carpenter Troccoli, writing in the exhibition catalog, “this splendid likeness…is one of the most influential American portraits ever painted.”
“Sha-ko-ka, Mint, a Pretty Girl,” 1832, features a mature, 12-year-old girl with long, white-streaked black hair common to Mandan females. Catlin found a plethora of attractive women among the Mandans.
At the Mandan enclave Catlin witnessed their annual four-day religious ceremony, the O-kee-pa, a fertility ritual aimed at ensuring a plentiful supply of buffalo. Among the riveting cycle of dances were self-torture rites inside a medicine lodge “in which young men were suspended by splints through their chest or shoulder muscles until they tore free,” and a race around the outside of the lodge “trailing buffalo skulls from other splints in their bodies,” says Dippie.
Catlin captured these eye-popping activities in a series of graphic, detailed paintings and later played up the sensationalism of the horrific images in lectures and exhibitions. Skeptics, questioning their accuracy, charged outright fabrication, which the artist was hard put to rebut because by then the Mandans were nearly extinct.
“It was a charge,” Dipple observes, “that would haunt him for the rest of his life, lending a particular edge to his sense of neglect and betrayal…It left him bitter but undeterred.” While as a matter of fact Catlin had accurately portrayed details of the rituals, vindication did not come until after his death.
In a more benign image, “Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony,” 1832, he offered a panoramic view of the scene outside the medicine lodge as crowds watched as other young men wearing entire buffalo skin outfits imitated the animal’s movements. This constituted the tribe’s petition to the Great Spirit for fertility and an abundant supply of buffalo. It is a lively, fascinating vignette of an unfamiliar, now disappeared, Native American activity.
From the outset of his western travels Catlin was fascinated by the size, strength and unpredictable behavior of the enormous buffalo — “a huge and furious animal,” he observed — that populated the Plains in large numbers. “He studied the ‘manners and customs’ of this quintessential western animal as thoroughly as those of any Indian community,” writes Troccoli. An entire gallery is devoted to buffalo paintings and associated objects, ranging from arrows and snowshoes to a buffalo headdress worn by Indian dancers.
Like many artists, Catlin found the buffalo’s massive bulk and unusually large, black eyes difficult to paint. But he created many intriguing views of the animal’s activities on its own and when confronted by Indian hunters. In “Buffalo Hunt under the Wolf-skin Mask,” 1832-33, and “Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances,” 1832-33, he conveyed the drama and spirited nature of these encounters.
Catlin recognized that in spite of their mighty numbers, the buffalo was headed for annihilation, given the pace of their killing by Plains Indians and, increasingly, by white men pushing westward. His sympathy for the endangered creature is reflected in his grizzly yet poignant “Dying Buffalo, Shot with an Arrow,” 1832, showing a bloody, sad-eyed buffalo about to expire.
During a foray up the Arkansas and Red Rivers with United States Dragoons in 1834, Catlin came down with a fever that proved lethal to many of the troops. While recuperating at Fort Gibson he was able to observe Cherokees and Creeks in the vicinity, and became a big fan of the physical, often violent, sport of lacrosse as played by the Choctaws. A gallery devoted to Native American ball games, featuring paintings of lacrosse games, includes several Choctaw lacrosse sticks made of hickory fitted with rawhide nets to catch the leather-covered ball.
“Tul-lock-chich-ko, Drinks the Juice of the Stone, in Ballplayer’s Dress,” 1834, documents the minimal Choctaw lacrosse uniform — breechclothes and wide, beaded belts. The model here, an outstanding player, wears a white horsehair tail and dyed cape of same to enhance his speed and strength. His lithe body is covered with red designs to distinguish him from his opponents.
“Ball-Play of the Choctaw – Ball Up,” 1845-48, provides a sweeping view of scores of competitors scuffling and wrestling for the ball on a field with football-like goal posts at either end. The perimeter of the field and the hill are thronged with spectators, some of whom are likely wagering objects and even dogs, horses and guns on the outcome of the game. It is a terrific scene.
In 1835, Catlin was joined for the only time by his wife Clara for a western sojourn, commencing with a trip up the Mississippi by steamer from New Orleans to Fort Snelling. They found tribes there, notably the Ojibwe, that had been increasingly influenced by the white man’s incursions. “Jo-ah-kis-gaw, Woman With Her Child in a Cradle,” 1835, shows the manner in which Indians incorporated European elements, such as elaborately colored woven cloth and extensive beadwork into their dress.
Catlin attended a treaty council on the Mississippi where Sac and Fox leaders, convinced opposition was fruitless, signed away tribal lands in Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. The artist recorded views of their chief, Keokul, standing stalwartly in full finery and proudly mounted on his horse, considered the finest steed on the frontier.
Learning that Osceola, the most important Indian leader in the Second Seminole War in Florida, was ill, Catlin rushed to Fort Moultrie in Charleston, S.C., where he was imprisoned. The 1838 portrait captures the Seminole’s movie-star good looks, noblemen and full dress costume. One of the artist’s finest likenesses, it was completed just days before its subject died of a throat infection and, Catlin said, of “a broken spirit.” It is a familiar and moving image.
In all, Catlin painted representatives of some 50 tribes comprising about two-thirds of the Indians living in what was then the United States and its territories. Back east, he organized around 500 paintings and numerous artifacts into his “Indian Gallery,” which toured Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, Cincinnati, Louisville and New York, where it opened in 1837.
As replicated in the Renwick exhibition, Catlin installed his paintings “salon style” — literally floor to ceiling — and provided a catalog so visitors could identify each painting by the number on its frame. Easterners, unfamiliar with the Native Americans of the West, greeted the displays with astonishment, confusion and even hostility.
Catlin counted on making money from admissions to his exhibition, but barely broke even on expenses during the tour of eastern cities. He began lobbying Congress to purchase the Indian Gallery, but it failed to act.
In 1839 Catlin took his Indian Gallery, weighing eight tons altogether, to London in search of larger audiences and perhaps a wealthy aristocrat to buy the collection. At the outset, the exhibition attracted good crowds in London, Brussels and Paris.
An 1849 portrait of the artist by William Fisk shows Catlin as he wished to be seen, wearing buckskin, holding a brush and palette and posed in a tipi in a Blackfoot encampment on the Upper Missouri. Figures adapted from his portraits and a view of the village frame the intrepid painter. This likeness is owned by the National Portrait Gallery.
Always eager to attract public notice, Catlin brought two grizzly bears with his collection to London. They proved such destructive guests, however, that European audiences had to settle for large-scale likenesses, such as “Portrait of a Grizzly Bear and Mouse, Life Size,” 1846-48. Here, the bold little mouse confirms the bear’s huge size.
When the novelty of the Indian Gallery wore off and attendance declined, Catlin added mock battles and organized publicity stunts. He mounted tableaux vivants, staged recreations of Indian dances and rituals, and hired Iowa and Ojibwe Indians to perform. “Catlin was…an early and vastly colorful combination of [P.T.] Barnum and Buffalo Bill,” wrote Hassrick.
Soon after the Indian Gallery was installed in the Louvre, two of Catlin’s most compelling paintings were exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1846. His likeness of Blackfoot chief Stu-mick-o-súcks, of 1832 and a war-painted Iowa Indian, “Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf, a Famous Warrior,” 1844, were greatly admired by Charles Beaudelaire. “M. Catlin has captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way,” wrote the French critic.
In voluminous writings, Catlin combined travelog and anthropological observations. For audiences of Nineteenth Century America, his words and illustrations conveyed new insights into the land, life and people of the West.
Over time, Catlin gained great respect for Native Americas. “The North American Indian in his native state,” he wrote, “is an honest, hospitable, faithful, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless — yet honorable, contemplative and religious being.”
The more he traveled among the Indians of the West the more Catlin became an outspoken critic of US government forced migration policies and advocate for preserving Indian culture, which he feared faced certain extinction. He believed that the combination of government programs, diseases and alcohol would wipe out Native Americans, buffaloes and the Great Plains as he knew them.
His attitude is reflected in two paintings of Pigeon’s Egg Head, an Assiniboine warrior. Catlin first painted his portrait in 1830, looking regal in full finery, as he passed through St Louis on his way to meet President Andrew Jackson and view the wonders of Washington.
Encountering the warrior on his return a year and a half later, the artist created the memorable before and after double likeness, “Wi-jun-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light) Going to and Returning From Washington,” 1837-39. It shows the Assiniboine arriving in the nation’s capital dressed in a buckskin suit with the Capitol in the distance. On his way back, he is improbably gussied-up in a dark officer’s uniform, carrying an umbrella, a fan and bottles of whiskey presented by the government.
The once respected warrior was ridiculed and ostracized by his tribesman and when he persisted in telling “evil lies” about the white man’s civilization, he was murdered. “Catlin’s message — civilization destroys Indian culture — doesn’t get much clearer than this,” observes Troccoli.
In 1852, mounting debts forced Catlin to sell his original Indian Gallery to Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Harrison. For years the collection languished in Harrison’s steam boiler factory. Meanwhile, Catlin tirelessly prodded the federal government to purchase the collection to no avail.
In 1870, after 30 years abroad, the bankrupt, widowed and exhausted artist returned to the United States. At the invitation of his friend Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he occupied a studio in the tower of the Smithsonian “castle,” but for less than a year prior to his death in 1872.
Seven years later, Henry’s successor, Spencer Baird, convinced Harrison’s widow to donate the Catlin collection to the Smithsonian. Today, the Institution holds not only this priceless trove of Catlin’s art, but artifacts, papers, maps and books that constitute a unique historic resource.
Catlin was driven to record, for posterity, a culture and a people he feared were doomed. In pursuit of his project he traveled widely and endured considerable hardships and dangers in order to observe at first hand life among Native Americans.
Well over a century after his death, Catlin remains the greatest portraitist of America’s Indians. As this fine exhibition documents, his art stands as the most accurate and memorable record of Indian life before the advent of the camera.
We can all be grateful that the fruits of Catlin’s labors are owned by the Smithsonian and will be available for the edification of future generations. Kudos to curator Gurney and his team for so beautifully mounting this enduring reminder of how one man’s single-minded devotion and talents succeeded in capturing on canvas a people and a way of life threatened by westward expansion. “” is a wonderful exhibition to view — and from which to learn. Do not miss it.
The 294-page, lavishly illustrated catalog is a model of comprehensiveness, scholarship and visual pleasures. Edited by Gurney and Therese Thau Heyman, it contains insightful essays by Catlin authorities Dippie, Hewman and Christopher Mulvey, useful commentaries on 120 color plates by Troccoli and an extensive bibliography.
Co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and W.W. Norton & Co., sells for $34.95 (softcover) and $60 (hardcover). It will be treasured by students and fans of American art, particularly those interested in art of the American West.
The Renwick Gallery is on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW (opposite the Old Executive Office Building and the White House) in Washington. For information, 202-357-2700.
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