One day in 1805, a 9-year-old boy exploring the woods along the Susquehanna River in southcentral New York came face-to-face with an Oneida Indian. The boy froze, terrified. Towering over him, the Indian lifted a hand in friendship. The boy never forgot the encounter or the man’s kindness. The experience may well have shaped George Catlin’s lifework.
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Today Indians from nearly 50 tribes are gathered in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. There are Sioux, Crow, Kickapoo, Comanche, and many more, resplendent in full tribal dress. The faces of famous chiefs mix with those of young women and medicine men. A huge tepee sits in the middle of the gathering, and the sound of stampeding buffalo wafts through the galleries. Hundreds of paintings adorn the walls, accompanied by displays of artifacts—a buffalo headdress, arrows, beaded garments. At the center of it all is a lone white man—part showman, part artist—who devoted his life to preserving, in his words, “the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America.”
In “George Catlin and His Indian Gallery” (through January 19, 2003), hundreds of stark, simple portraits stare impassively at visitors. The show, which also includes Catlin’s renderings of Indian rituals and landscapes of the prairie he traveled by steamboat, horseback and canoe in the 1830s, marks the first time in more than a century that Catlin’s paintings and the items he collected have been exhibited together in the manner he displayed them (1837-1850) in salons along the Eastern Seaboard and in London, Paris and Brussels. The artist, who was both heralded and criticized while he was alive, died in 1872 wondering what would happen to his gallery. “In his time, Catlin was considered a B painter, but he was a complex and fascinating figure,” says the exhibit’s cocurator George Gurney. “His collection is the largest of pre-photographic material of Native Americans. It’s an incredible record.”
Though not the first artist to paint American Indians, Catlin was the first to picture them so extensively in their own territories and one of the few to portray them as fellow human beings rather than savages. His more realistic approach grew out of his appreciation for a people who, he wrote, “had been invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested from them, their customs changed, and therefore lost to the world.” Such empathy was uncommon in 1830, the year the federal Indian Removal Act forced Southeastern tribes to move to what is now Oklahoma along the disastrous “Trail of Tears.”
Catlin had little or no formal training as an artist, but he grew up hearing tales of Indians from settlers and from his own mother, who at age 7 had been abducted, along with her mother, by Iroquois during a raid along the Susquehanna in 1778. They were soon released unharmed, and Polly Catlin often told her son about the experience.