||Catlin, George, 1796-1872
||Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio
||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).
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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
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
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
catlin.html). The Smithsonian has also mounted 466 of
Catlin's images at
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
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).