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The Indian Gallery of George Catlin

As a young man, George Catlin was inspired to pursue a quest that eventually resulted in an invaluable historical record of a disappearing race – that of the American Indian. Today, Catlin’s legacy of paintings, sketches, and writings are among the most significant documentation we have about the Native American tribes that inhabited the United States before the white man appeared.

George Catlin was born in 1796 in Wilkes Barr, Pennsylvania, the son of an attorney. As a boy, Catlin heard the tales of his mother’s brief capture by an Indian tribe during the Revolutionary War. The tribe treated her well and so Catlin developed a respect and appreciation for Native Americans and learned much about their culture. In his early twenties, Catlin practiced law and also worked as a miniaturist but apparently these endeavors did not satisfy his lust for adventure and fame. When an American Indian delegation arrived in Philadelphia in the 1820s, Catlin was inspired to make the study of these native people his life’s work.

Catlin began his quest in 1830 when he left his wife and aging parents and accompanied General William Clark up the Mississippi river and into Indian territory. Over a period of about seven years, Catlin traveled the Missouri, Arkansas and Red rivers, Florida and the northern areas of the Great Lakes to observe and record the lifestyle of various American Indian tribes. In 1836, Catlin gathered together a huge collection of Indian objects and exhibited it as an “Indian Gallery” in New York. With the exhibit, he attempted to make known the life of these native people. Since the show was a big hit in New York, he took it to other major cities along the East Coast and then to London and the Continent.

The “Indian Gallery” attracted huge numbers of people who were eager to satisfy their curiosity about the “savages” of the New World. In the show, Catlin exhibited not only his paintings and sketches but also a multitude of genuine Indian artifacts such as costumes, tools and weapons. With a talent for showmanship, Catlin included two grizzly bears in the show and arranged for natives to demonstrate various dances and rituals. In London, his show was such a hit that he was presented to Queen Victoria. With the proceeds from these shows, Catlin was able to pay off some debt that had accumulated but in 1852, he found himself in financial difficulty and as a result, a significant portion of his collection was seized by creditors.

Despite the loss of his Gallery, Catlin continued with his mission, this time traveling to both North and South America, continuing to sketch and write about the natives he encountered. By 1860, Catlin settled in Brussels and for the next ten years repainted many of his earlier works based on his copious notes. He died in 1872.

It is amazing that Catlin gave up a socially acceptable career to live in such a precarious manner. Traveling by horse, he lived roughly on his expeditions. As any other explorer, Catlin took only what was necessary on his expeditions: knife, pistols, compass, tin cup, coffee pot, a fur for warmth, and a supply of hard biscuit. It is known that he also carried with him his painting supplies, such as pre-cut canvasses, easel, paints and brushes. Examination of his work indicates that he applied paint in very thin layers, perhaps allowing for the possibility of adding details at a later and more convenient time. Catlin was good at slipping into the life of the tribes with which he had contact. He was readily accepted into the Native Americans’ daily lives and allowed to participate in their rituals. He hunted with them and dressed like them.

Overall, Catlin came into contact with 48 tribes. He created over 600 works of art detailing the lives of these tribes. Catlin had always regarded his “Indian Gallery” collection to be a national treasure. In fact, he had repeatedly tried to sell it to the United States government but was refused each time. Fortunately, the part of the collection that Catlin had to part with during his financial difficulties found its way into the hands of manufacturing magnate Joseph Harrison. Harrison’s widow later donated the collection to the Smithsonian Institution where it was placed in the Museum of Natural History because of its ethnological value. In the 1980s, Catlin’s collection was moved to the American Art Museum in Washington, DC where it can be seen today.

To see a virtual gallery of Catlin’s “Indian Gallery” at the American Art Museum, click here. Look for the link at the bottom that says “TO IMAGES.”


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 About
 the
 Author

Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at www.dianablake.net.