The Old Print Shop

George Catlin


George Catlin was an American lawyer, painter and author, best known for his artwork and documentation of Native American tribes. "If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me from visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America." It was a race against time. Catlin's desire to document "the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America" collided with the government's implementation of the Indian Removal Act. Many tribes would be extinguished, or face grave loses through disease and abhorrent treatment. <br><br>Catlin began life as a lawyer, passing the bar exam in 1818. By 1821 he had abandoned that life in lieu of perusing an artistic career and by the 1830s was out West drawing, painting and documenting the Native Americans. Before the decade was out, he had completed some 500 portraits, landscapes and scenes, which he took on tour through the US and parts of Europe. He called the exhibition his "Indian Gallery" and a "collection of Nature's dignitaries." Catlin certainly wasn't the first to paint the Native Americans, but he is regarded as being the first to show them as human beings, not savages. He dutifully presented the indigenous people in their tribal wear, preforming rituals, hunting in traditional manners, etc, all the while rendering them with a sense of kindness that was so often besmirched of them in his time. Catlin would again tour the country, with parts of South America added in, later in life, producing and additional 200 or so paintings.<br><br>In 1944, twenty-five of his paintings were translated into folio-sized lithographs and were sold as the first edition of the "North American Indian Portfolio." Additional lithographs were published in the octavo-sized "Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians", which was published in multiple languages.

Catlin once remarked that he chose to peruse such his artistic and documentary career because the indigenous people "had been invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed, and therefore [were] lost to the world." His empathy, perhaps, stemmed from a childhood experience. It is said at the age of nine, while wandering in the woods in southcentral New York, Catlin stumbled upon an Oneida man and, fearing for his life, was surprised to find the man bore no ill will. Throughout his career, Catlin denounced the government's treatment of the indigenous people, an element which earn him scorn. Catlin is not without modern controversy, however, on the opposite end of the spectrum. While Catlin showed a seemingly unusual level of compassion for someone of his day, his work is viewed by some as having been invasive because of his depictions of indigenous rituals and other sensitive cultural elements. He also profited from his work through traveling exhibitions.

Seven years after his death, Catlin&#8217;s "Indian Gallery" was donated to the Smithsonian Institute by Joseph Harrison&#8217;s widow. Harrison had purchased the exhibition for $20,000 while it was on tour in Europe, and Catlin was flirting with bankruptcy. In total, some 450 paintings and a vast number of Native American items and artifacts were in the collection.