George Catlin was a a sort of 19th century self-made anthropologist, studying and attempting to preserve descriptions of the way of life of numerous Indian tribes in North America (he was convinced they were disappearing and soon would be gone and forgotten). In 1841, he published what is still considered an important document on the history and cultures of the Native Americans: the two volume Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians. (It's still in print—I could go get a copy of selections from it or a full copy, including the over four hundred etchings, at the local Barnes and Noble.)

But he is best remembered for the hundreds of oil paintings, drawings, sketches, and other artwork celebrating and documenting the Indians' way of life as well as many of the famous chiefs and others.

Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on 26 July 1796. He grew up loving the outdoors and hearing stories and legends about Indians. When she was a child, his mother had been captured by Iroquois Indians in the Wyoming Massacre (Pennsylvania, 1778) along with his grandmother. They were treated well and released shortly after, unharmed. She made sure he knew of the good treatment and the honor of the captors. This may have been a large part of what would later become one his lifeswork.

In accordance to his father's wishes, he entered law. In 1817 and 1818, he passed the Connecticut and Pennsylvania bar exams, respectively, and began to practice law. But "lawyering" didn't suit Catlin and in 1821, he moved to Philadelphia and began working at becoming an artist. For a while he worked as a miniaturist, exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He probably had some formal training during the period (information is scarce) but was primarily self-taught. He then turned to portraits and exhibited for another few years before moving to New York City around 1826.

He got his first major commission painting the governor of New York. While working in Albany, he met the woman who would be his wife and married in May 1828. That summer, it is said that he observed a delegation of Indians pass through Philadelphia, reawakening his interest and inspiring him to use his painting skills to lend "a hand to a dying nation, who have no historian or biographer of their own" and to "[snatch] from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity" (

Considering that the Indian Removal Act was not passed until 1830 and the first serious removals (various " trails of tears" for the different Eastern tribes) beginning shortly after, Catlin seems to had a good view of what was to happen and continue throughout the rest of the century (fortunately he underestimated the capacity for survival of the Indian peoples). He remained in New York until 1830, painting portraits of the delegates to the Virginia Constitutional Convention.

At that point, he felt he could not postpone his plans any longer and left (against most wishes) for St. Louis. There, with help from Superintendent of Indian Affairs General William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame), who gained him access to subjects, he began his studies and in the late summer or early fall of 1830 and made his first portraits near Fort Leavenworth. He traveled around the area, painting and sketching many subjects before returning East.

His initial success drove him to want to travel farther and preserve more tribes on canvas (especially ones with less contact with whites). So he returned to St. Louis and took a trip on the steamer Yellowstone for a three month voyage on the Yellowstone River to Fort Union (near the North Dakota-Montana border)—about two thousand miles. He was able to paint landscapes and various scenes during the journey. Upon arrival he painted and sketched (many turned into paintings later) scenes from the daily lives of various tribes—as many as five or six paintings a day. He also kept notes and writings that later were invaluable in understanding the lives of those peoples (many of which became the basis for his book).

In 1832, he visited the Mandan tribe for a month or so, leaving a legacy of notes and portraits that managed to preserve a culture that was nearly wiped out only a few years later—over 90% died of a smallpox epidemic, leaving around 125 people or less. He was trusted enough by the tribe to be the first white man to witness the important Okipa (Okeepa and variations) ceremony (or rather, a series of ceremonies). It was a sacred tradition that (depending on the tribe) involved piercings and cuttings and spilt blood, a ritualistic enduring of pain, as a part of or relating to the "Sun Dance." Its importance

involves renewal—the spiritual renewal of participants and their relatives as well as the renewal of the living earth and all its components....kinships within both the social and natural realms are reaffirmed....Less specifically, the ordeal may be undertaken to promote the general welfare of the dancers' people....In former times, voluntary torture was part of the climax of the sun dance in certain tribes.... In those cases, the dancers were pierced through the breast or shoulder muscles by skewers which were tied to the center pole, and they danced by pulling back until their flesh tore away. Sometimes the thongs inserted in the sufferers bodies were attached to a varying number of buffalo skulls rather than to the center pole. (

If one is familiar with the film A Man Called Horse (1970), it should sound familiar. (A note: despite the descriptions, the Mandan were a peaceful tribe who subsisted mainly through agriculture.) Catlin's "terrifying gift" of capturing someone's image with colors on paper made the Mantans feel he was worthy of viewing the experience.

He returned East to finish up the paintings that were started and reunite with his wife. He also had a few exhibitions of his work. Catlin took another trip in 1834, accompanying a group of dragoons to the Southwest. Among other things, he painted the first pictures of the Indian removals. During that trip, he and the majority of his party became sick with fever (many died). He took the return journey alone (twenty five days and five hundred and fifty miles).

Catlin lectured and continued to exhibit his work, along with many native artifacts, including clothing, tools, and weapons. He took his final major North American expedition in 1836, to visit the Indian's sacred "pipestone" quarry in what is now Minnesota (he was detained for a while by the Indians who had control there—it was originally a "neutral" place, something that had changed by the time of his visit). Pipestone, so-called because it was used to make sacred pipes by the Indians, is a (usually) red type of stone made of hardened clay that is, initially, easily "carved" and was used by the Indians to make their pipes (as it is exposed to air, it begins to harden). Catlin was possibly the first white man to see the sacred site. He brought back some of the stone and has since been honored with its other name "catlinite."

Between 1830 and 1836, it is estimated that Catlin visited some forty-eight tribes and painted over five hundred paintings (and other artwork). In order to do the work he did, he was required to work fast and used a limited number of bright, quickly drying pigments. He also tended to work more on the details of the face, leaving the body more of a sketch to be finished later (or not). Some feel this may be the source of some of his apparent lack of sophistication in technique—though it is acknowledged that he was self-taught and more interested in capturing history and culture and verisimilitude than in anything approaching photorealism.

Along with his already lifelong sentiments toward the Indians, Catlin had seen and learned much during his travels and interactions. He became a proponant of better treatment for the Indians, even suggesting a "national park" that would preserve and protect the Indians' natural environment (a sort of proto- reservation, though with good intentions, rather than a way to "dispose" of the "problem")—it wasn't well received. He spoke out against fur companies and others who would deliberately set up the whiskey trade in order to drain the Indians of money and goods (and eventually land, whether through debt or getting agreements from them while they were under the influence). He wrote:

Their country was entered by white men, but a few hundred years since; and thirty millions of these are now scuffling for the goods and luxuries of life...over the bones and ashes of twelve millions of red men; six millions of whom have fallen victims to the small-pox, and the remainder to the sword, the bayonet, and whiskey; all of which means of their death and destruction have been introduced and visited upon them by acquisitive white men; and by white men, also, whose forefathers were welcomed and embraced in the land where the poor Indian met and fed them with ears of green corn and pemican [sic] (

Catlin hoped that, through his work and exhibitions and lectures, that he might be able to influence those in power to make changes before it was too late.

In 1837, he opened his "Indian Gallery" which housed not only his work, but thousands of examples of native dress and other artifacts that he had collected over the years. The Gallery was exhibited in several cities.

The following year, Catlin was given a commission by the government to come and paint the recently captured Seminole chief Osceola and others at a prison in South Carolina. Shortly after the portrait was made, the chief succumbed to a combination of malaria and acute tonsillitis (he refused Western medical treatment). He kept the paintings partly because he knew he could get more money for funding the Gallery (monetary problems plagued him the rest of his life) and partly because it might get more recognition of the mistreatment of the Indians by the government. While a sale didn't come out of it, Congree did consider an offer to purchase his entire collection. Since no official offer was made, Catlin decided he had to take the Gallery and move on.

The Gallery was taken to England where it was displayed for nearly five years at different cities (later in 1845, it spent almost a year in Paris). For a while he hired actual Ojibwa Indians—later employing a group of Iowa Indians, as well—to participate in the show. Unfortunately for Catlin, the popularity of the Gallery could not offset his money problems (some of which were incurred from his "collecting" of cultural artifacts). Even royal commissions for, first, fifteen replicas of his work and, second, for a series celebrating the exploration of the New World by RenĂ©-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle (the latter delivered only days before the king was ousted from power). Catlin was never paid for the second series. He also lost his wife during this period.

In the 1850s, he tried his hand at being a spokesperson for Texas land speculators, losing much of his money. The company—and Catlin, who really knew very little about the land in Texas—misinformed the people it had enticed to come live there. The settlement was a disaster. Faced with bankruptcy, he was forced to give up his collection which went to a Philadelphia industrialist. The works were stored in a boiler factory (or warehouse) for many years, until the industrialist's wife (seven years after his death in 1879) donated them to what became the Smithsonian Institution (or it was a lawyer—I have conflicting sources). Though some of the neglected work was lost, the majority of the oil paintings survived.

Catlin traveled to South America and along the West Coast up to Alaska in 1852, trying to recreate his earlier success with new material. Because of the climate, he had to alter his choice of medium and materials, as well as style (which he referred to as his "cartoon" style, the work being called the "cartoon collection"). This work was less "personal" and more detached than the earlier work and didn't stir much interest.

He moved to Brussels, Belgium in 1860 where he painted pictures (mostly from memory and notebook descriptions) using his earlier subject matter (though in the later style). During that period he wrote other books and, thinking he could tour with the success he once had, attempted to sell his collections to the New York Historical Society (probably thinking the money raised would also cancel the debt, allowing him to sell the paintings). His asking price was far too high.

He returned to the United States in 1871 and tried doing shows of the later work but found little interest. The following year, he accepted a standing invitation to exhibit his work in Washington, D.C.. Again he tried to sell his paintings (this time much lower—in fact, at a price that had been considered twenty-five years previous). And again, no one was interested.

The next year, he became ill and moved to New Jersey where his daughters could take care of him. He had left a collection in Washington, hoping for a change of mind which did not come. George Catlin died on 23 December 1872.

(Sources:,,, Gloria Jahoda The Trail of Tears 1975,

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.