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Catlin, Georgelocked

(26 July 1796–23 December 1872)
  • Brian W. Dippie

Catlin, George (26 July 1796–23 December 1872), artist, was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the son of Putnam Catlin, a lawyer, farmer, and minor officeholder, and Polly Sutton. Catlin grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania and Broome County, New York. He entered law school in Litchfield, Connecticut, in July 1817, and the next year he was admitted to the bar in Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Catlin abandoned his law practice within a few years, sold his law books, and in 1821 moved to Philadelphia, determined to make his mark as an artist. He had dabbled as a painter in the past, but now art became his profession. He brought to it an unquenchable romanticism and at most, a rudimentary talent. Catlin specialized in miniatures (those of some of his family members show him to advantage), exhibited regularly, and became a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824. But portraiture was dull, and miniatures were inadequate to the scope of his ambition. Catlin was already nurturing the idea of becoming a historical painter when he moved to New York in 1827, the year after he was elected a member of the newly founded National Academy of Design.

In 1828 Catlin married Clara Gregory, the daughter of a prominent Albany family. Recognition had already come his way with a commission from the New York Common Council to paint a full-length portrait of Governor De Witt Clinton (City Hall, N.Y.). Modest success was in the offing, but Catlin was still restless, still in search of an animating purpose for his life and art. He found it, he recalled, when he spotted a delegation of western American Indians on a visit to Philadelphia: their appearance captivated him, and he resolved to paint Indians, “thus snatching from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity, and perpetuating it, as a fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race” (Letters and Notes, vol. 1, p. 3). Realism was never Catlin’s strong suit. He was a dreamer, wildly impractical, and a driven man beset by contrary impulses, at once exploitive and tenderhearted, negligent and loving, self-centered and altruistic. His stated goal was to win fame and fortune by creating an Indian Gallery. Confident his endeavor would command public support, in the spring of 1830 he moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, to launch his career as a painter of Indians.

Catlin polished his artistic skills on visiting members of various tribes (he was good at painting faces but weak at anatomy), and then he boarded a steamboat on 26 March 1832 for the 1,800-mile trip up the Missouri River to Fort Union, in the heart of Indian country. He painted Blackfeet, Crow, and all the river tribes, concentrating on the Mandan, whose devastation by smallpox five years later confirmed the importance of his visionary enterprise. Subsequently he toured the southern plains (1834), the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes region (1835), and the sacred red pipestone quarry on the Coteau des Prairies (1836). He described his travels in letters to the newspapers, which were collected in his 1841 classic Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, and between trips he exhibited his growing collection of Indian paintings to help cover expenses.

Catlin’s Indian Gallery was a novelty. Artists before him had painted Indian dignitaries visiting in Washington, D.C., or had portrayed them in council with American officials in the field. Catlin’s claim to originality turned on the nature and extent of his coverage. Besides more than 300 portraits of men and women from some fifty tribes, he displayed 200 paintings of Indians on their own turf, going about their everyday activities. His catalogs and advertising emphasized these “beautiful Landscapes of the Prairies of the ‘Far West’—Views of Indian villages—Dances, Sports and Amusements” (New York Morning Herald, 27 Nov. 1837). He rightfully insisted that he was the first artist to offer the world a representative picture of Indian life based on personal observation. Though he described his paintings in his 1837 catalog as “rather as fac similes of what he has seen, than as finished works of art” (p. 36), his best portraits (Black Hawk, Buffalo Bull, Red Bear, Mint, Mountain of Rocks, Sky-se-ro-ka, Osceola, and Little Wolf, for example) show people, not romantic stereotypes, and the ethnographic value of his work has only appreciated with the passage of time.

Catlin formed his Indian Gallery without government patronage, but he turned to Congress in May 1838 confident it would reward his enterprise by purchasing his collection. Frustrated in this hope, he nevertheless became a regular supplicant, petitioning Congress with an urgency that mounted with his debts. Certain he would find a more receptive audience in Europe, he moved to England in November 1839. After touring his gallery throughout Great Britain, he took his collection in April 1845 to Paris, where he was entertained by King Louis-Philippe. But fame never translated into fortune for Catlin, and in 1848, fleeing ahead of a revolution that swept Louis-Philippe off the throne, he returned to London with his three daughters; his wife and only son had died during his stay in France. His gallery was no longer a novelty in England, and though a book recounting his experiences abroad (Notes of Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe, with His North American Indian Collection [1848]), lectures, and American emigration schemes kept his name before the British public, Catlin continued to slide toward financial ruin. His 1852 appeal to the U.S. Congress—his fifth in seven years—was thus a desperate one. “My Collection is in the hands of and at the mercy of, my creditors,” he wrote Daniel Webster, “I have not the power to save it—but the Congress of My Country has, provided their action is quick” (15 Apr. 1852, Webster papers). Congress rejected Catlin’s latest plea for purchase, and his life’s work was lost to his creditors.

Bereft of his Indian Gallery, Catlin entered a period of obscurity and frequent despair, punctuated by three trips to South America in the 1850s that are still shrouded in mystery (his primary motive may have been a search for precious minerals). He lived by his wits, selling compilations (“albums unique”) of pencil outlines previously copied from his Indian portraits and publishing two successful children’s books recounting his travels, Life amongst the Indians (1861) and Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes (1867). He wrote a quirky self-help manual that was an unlikely popular success, The Breath of Life; or, Mal-Respiration (1861); a book defending his Mandan studies against charges of inaccuracy, O-Kee-Pa: A Religious Ceremony; and Other Customs of the Mandans (1867); and another advancing a theory of geological catastrophe in the creation of the Western Hemisphere, The Lifted and Subsided Rocks of America (1870). He also painted a second Indian gallery, a group of 600 “cartoons,” half recapitulating his original collection, the rest showing Indians of the Northwest Coast and South America, which he exhibited in Brussels in 1870. The next year, after an absence of more than three decades, he returned to America and showed his Cartoon Collection in New York and in February 1872, at the invitation of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. That May he petitioned Congress to purchase his original gallery, thereby allowing him to redeem it from storage in Philadelphia, where his principal creditor resided. Congress had taken no action before Catlin died in Jersey City, his daughters by his side.

Amazingly, Catlin’s two Indian collections have survived in Washington largely intact, the Indian Gallery owned by the National Museum of American Art and the Cartoon Collection owned by the National Gallery of Art. They attest to Catlin’s peculiar genius. He had set out to show “a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red” (Letters and Notes, vol. 1, p. 59). In paintings sometimes naive and awkward, sometimes poignant and profound, he fashioned the prism through which Americans still view a vanished world.


The Catlin papers are scattered. The Smithsonian Institution holds an important collection that is readily accessible in the Archives of American Art microfilm series, rolls 2136–37. The principal family collection is in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, and has been published in Marjorie Catlin Roehm, The Letters of George Catlin and His Family: A Chronicle of the American West (1966). Some of his letters are in the Daniel Webster Papers at Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N.J. Besides his own books, the most useful works on Catlin are Thomas Donaldson’s huge compilation The George Catlin Indian Gallery in the U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian Institution) with Memoir and Statistics, Annual Report, Smithsonian Institution, 1885, pt. 2 (1886); John C. Ewers, “George Catlin: Painter of Indians of the West,” Annual Report, Smithsonian Institution, 1955 (1955); Harold McCracken, George Catlin and the Old Frontier (1959); and William H. Truettner’s masterly The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (1979). Brian W. Dippie, Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (1990), examines Catlin’s unsuccessful quest for patronage and places the artist in a broad historical context. Helpful for understanding Catlin’s artistic goals is Joan Carpenter Troccoli, First Artist of the West: George Catlin Paintings and Watercolors (1993). For a compilation of Catlin’s paintings and writings from the 1850s, see Marvin C. Ross, George Catlin: Episodes from Life among the Indians and Last Rambles (1959). For an entire “album unique” in facsimile, see Peter Hassrick’s edition of George Catlin, Drawings of the North American Indian (1984), and for a case study in Catlin’s South American rambles, see Edgardo Carlos Krebs, “George Catlin and South America: A Look at His ‘Lost’ Years and His Paintings of Northeastern Argentina,” American Art Journal 22, no. 4 (1990): 4–39.