Despite a talent for drawing, Catlin (the fifth of 14 children) followed the importunings of his father, Putnam Catlin, and studied law. In 1820, he set up a practice near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he had been born in 1796 (though the family moved to a farm 40 miles away in New York when he was an infant). But he found himself sketching judges, juries and “culprits” in court, and after a few years he sold his law books and moved to Philadelphia to try his hand as an artist.
He earned commissions to paint the leading figures of the day, including Sam Houston and Dolley Madison, but struggled to find a larger purpose to his work. “My mind was continually reaching for some branch or enterprise of the art, on which to devote a whole lifetime of enthusiasm,” he wrote in his memoirs. He found it circa 1828, when a delegation of Indians stopped in Philadelphia en route to Washington, D.C. Captivated by “their classic beauty,” Catlin then began searching for Indian subjects. He felt that “civilization”—particularly whiskey and smallpox—was wiping them out, and he vowed that “nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.” Although recently married to Clara Gregory, the daughter of a prominent Albany, New York, family, Catlin packed up his paints in 1830, left his new wife and headed west. (The Catlins, by all accounts, adored each other, and Catlin was constantly torn between devotion to his family, which in time would include four children, and his artistic ambitions.)
St. Louis was then the edge of the Western frontier, and Catlin wasn’t there long before he wrangled a meeting with the city’s most illustrious citizen, Gen. William Clark. Having already explored the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis, Clark was then the government’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Western tribes. Catlin presented his early portraits to the general and asked for Clark’s assistance in making contact with Indians in the West. Clark was skeptical at first, but Catlin convinced him of the sincerity of his quest. That summer, Clark took Catlin some 400 miles up the Mississippi River to FortCrawford, where several tribes—the Sauk, Fox and Sioux among them—were having a council. Surrounded by gruff soldiers and somber Indians, whose customs were largely a mystery, Catlin took out his brushes and went to work. He would stay in the West six years, though he returned most winters to his family.
During those years, he painted 300 portraits and nearly 175 landscapes and ritual scenes. Back in New York City in 1837, he displayed them salon-style, stacked floor to ceiling, one above the other—row after row of faces identified by name and number—an arrangement to which the Renwick has been largely faithful. More than a century and a half later, there remains something startling and immediate about the faces. At first glance, they seem condemning, as if daring us to look at them without guilt. But after contemplating them awhile, they appear less forbidding. Catlin called his gallery a “collection of Nature’s dignitaries,” and dignity indeed makes certain individuals stand out. A stately Chief Kee-o-kuk of the Sauk and Fox proudly holds tomahawk, blanket and staff. La-dóo-ke-a (Buffalo Bull), a Pawnee warrior, poses commandingly in full ceremonial paint. Catlin’s landscapes are equally evocative, depicting virgin rivers and rolling hills as if from the air.
Throughout Catlin’s career, journalists tended to praise his work even as some art critics dismissed him as an “American primitive,” calling his artistry “deficient in drawing, perspective and finish.” More controversial was his attitude toward people most Americans then regarded as savages. Catlin denounced the term, calling it “an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied.” He praised Indians as “honest, hospitable, faithful . . . ” and criticized the government and fur traders alike for their treatment of natives. Indian society, he wrote, “has become degraded and impoverished, and their character changed by civilized teaching, and their worst passions inflamed . . . by the abuses practiced amongst them.”