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George Catlin

Written by Brett Nelson

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Posted on September 26 2019

Born: July 26, 1796, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: December 23, 1872, Jersey City, New Jersey, United States

A painter and writer, George Catlin was the first white man to depict Plains Indians in their native territory and specialised in the artistic preservation of the natives of North America. Born on July 26, 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennslyvania, Catlin was raised during a period of hostility from the American frontier towards the indigenous people of America. His parents had moved to Wilkes-Barre after the Revolutionary War and he spent his childhood playing outdoor sports, fishing, hunting, and uncovering Native American artefacts. His mother often told him stories of the American western frontier and recalled how she was captured by a tribe when she was a young girl. These stories awakened a deep interest and fascination with Native Americans in Catlin from a young age. Adding to his interest in Native American culture was his childhood Native American friend, On-o-gon-way and a group of Native Americans who passed through Philadelphia dressed in colourful outfits.

Despite his interests, Catlin initially began studying to become a lawyer, however, soon a calling as an artist led to him producing two major collections featuring paintings of Native Americans and in 1823 he abandoned law altogether. Inspired by relics brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, Catlin set out to record the customs and appearances of the Native Americans. His first subject was a Seneca Indian named Red Jacket. After this first portrait, Catlin set out to travel across America, beginning his journey in 1930 and accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission along the Mississippi River. He returned a further five times between 1830 and 1836, visiting over fifty tribes. He painted and preserved the culture of each tribe he encountered, many of whom were exterminated not long after Catlin’s visit. For example, a Sioux clan was completely wiped out by the small pox disease just a few years after Catlin had visited them to document their customs, traditions, and dress. During his visits along the Mississippi River, he reached land previously untouched by white men, painting some of his most critically acclaimed work.

Two years later, Catlin trekked the Missouri River, where he encountered a further eighteen tribes, many of whom had never seen a white man before. He also made trips to Florida, the Great Lakes, Red, and Arkansas, producing a collection of over 500 paintings which he put on exhibition in an attempt to demonstrate the beauty of this dying race. However, his exhibition was received with fleeting and mild interest. In 1839, he took his exhibition overseas to Europe and attracted large crowds in London, Paris, and Brussels. Upon his return to the United States he attempted to sell his collection to the US government, hoping they could preserve his life’s work. However, his failure to convince the government to purchase his works and personal debts led to him selling his paintings privately to industrialist, Joseph Harrison, who stored them in a factory in Philadelphia.

Catlin spent the remainder of his life trying to recreate his collection and produced a further 400 paintings. Catlin spent time in South and Central America as well as the Far West before returning to the United States and spending his last years in a studio in the Smithsonian “Castle”. He passed away on December 23, 1872. A few years later, in 1879, Harrison’s widow donated his original works to the Smithsonian where they form part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection today. His illustrations and artefacts are scattered between the Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History in New York, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

View Our George Catlin Gallery