American Journeys
Home Find a Document Images Advanced Search Highlights Teachers Help  
Document Number: AJ-118
Author: Catlin, George, 1796-1872
Title: Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio
Source: Catlin, George. Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, Made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. (London: Geo. Catlin, 1844).
Pages/Illustrations: 46 / 25
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-118/

Author Note

George Catlin (1796-1872), one of fourteen children, grew up on the Ohio frontier. His mother had been captured by the Iroquois as a girl, and his own childhood encounters with Indians had a lifelong effect on him. They may explain why at age of thirty-two he abandoned a desultory law practice in Philadelphia to follow his passion, painting Native Americans.

In 1830 he headed west to St. Louis where he met the aging William Clark (see AJ-100 and AJ-146 to AJ-149), who was then U.S. superintendent of Indian Affairs. Clark not only gave him advice but escorted him four hundred miles up the Mississippi River so Catlin could paint the chiefs of several nations who had assembled for a council at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Catlin remained in the West for the next six years except for occasional visits to his family. Between 1830 and 1837 he painted three-hundred portraits of dignitaries from forty-eight tribes, as well as 175 landscapes. He also built a large collection of Indian clothing and artifacts that included a Plains Indians teepee.

In 1837 Catlin opened the first commercial exhibition of his work. Fascinated New Yorkers paid fifty cents each and thronged his galleries for weeks. In subsequent months he repeated this success in other eastern cities, but the market was soon saturated. Looking for new audiences and possible purchasers of his collection, he embarked for Europe with his family at the end of 1839.

He held successful exhibitions in London, Brussels and Paris, but the expense of shipping himself, his entourage, and his enormous collectionówhich weighed eight tons and included two live bearsókept him perpetually in debt. Despite accolades from Queen Victoria of England and King Louis-Phillipe of France, he could never make ends meet. To ward off creditors he lectured, made hand-painted copies, published his memoirs, and tried to sell his collection en bloc to the U.S. government. Nothing worked, however, and in 1852, following the deaths of his wife and son, he was thrown into a London debtorsí prison.

Later that year a wealthy Pennsylvania railroad tycoon who admired Catlinís work paid his debts, bought the collection (which he put into storage), and had the artist released from jail. For the next eighteen years Catlin wandered around Europe and South America, recreating his gallery of Indian portraits and adding new pieces to it on his travels. He only returned to America in 1870. When his new paintings were exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1872, the now elderly Catlin was given room and board in the institutionís headquarters. He died at the end of that year, still anxious about the fate of his collection.

He neednít have worried. In 1879, the 450 original paintings were given to the Smithsonian by the widow of the railroad tycoon who had warehoused them a quarter century before. His later copies were sold by his daughters to collector Paul Mellon, who gave the bulk of them to the National Gallery of Art.

Document Note

The book given in its entirety here is a large folio volume containing twenty pages of text and twenty-five lithographic reproductions of Catlinís paintings. Catlin intended it to be the first of a series, but only this one volume was produced. An American edition was issued the next year in New York by James Ackerman, and its lithographic stones were used about twenty years later for an edition by the famous firm of Currier and Ives. A full-color facsimile was produced in 1989 by the Library of Congress and the Abbeville Press.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

An analysis of Catlinís career appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in December 2002 (online at http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues02/dec02/ catlin.html). The Smithsonian has also mounted 466 of Catlin's images at http://www.nmaa.si.edu/

Details of his travels can be seen at the University of Cincinnati exhibit available at http://www.archives.uc.edu/exhibits/catlin/catweb.html. Catlinís memoirs and other books can be read at Early Canadiana Online (www.canadiana.org). These include Adventures of the Ojibbeway and Ioway Indians in England, France, and Belgium: Being Notes of Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe With His North American Indian Collection (1852); Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians: Written During Eight Year's Travel Amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America, in 1832, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, and 39 (1841); and Life Among the Indians (1867).

Read this Document
Print or Download
Read Background
View Reference Map (PDF)
How to Cite
Copyright and Permissions
© 2014 Wisconsin Historical Society Feedback | Site Help
Wisconsin history