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George Catlin's Obsession

No artist devoted himself more passionately to a single subject than George Catlin. An exhibition at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. asks: Did his work exploit or advance the American Indian?

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If Catlin alive stirred controversy for his championing of Native Americans, today he is as likely to be seen as an exploiter of them. “A native person is challenged, I think, not to feel on some level a profound resentment toward Catlin,” says W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and himself a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. “His obsession with depicting Indians has an extremely invasive undertone to it.” As for Catlin’s relentless promotion of his gallery, West adds, “There’s no question . . . he was exploiting Indians and the West as a commodity. On the other hand, he was far ahead of his time in his empathy for Indians. Catlin swam against the tide to bring to light information about the Indians that depicts them accurately as worthy human beings and worthy cultures.”

 

And what did the men and women who posed for Catlin think of their portraits? Reactions to Catlin’s work varied from tribe to tribe. Sioux medicine men predicted dire consequences for those whose souls he captured on canvas, yet Blackfoot medicine men readily allowed themselves to be painted. The Mandan, awed by Catlin’s ability to render likenesses, called him Medicine White Man. Sometimes his portraits stirred up trouble. Once among the Hunkpapa Sioux on the Missouri River, he painted Chief Little Bear in profile. When the portrait was nearly finished, a rival saw it and taunted, “[The artist] knows you are but half a man, for he has painted but half of your face!” The chief ignored the affront, and when the portrait was done, he presented Catlin with a buckskin shirt decorated with porcupine quills. But the insult led to an intertribal war that claimed many lives. Some Sioux blamed Catlin and condemned him to death, but by then he had moved farther upriver.

 

In his six years on the prairie, Catlin survived debilitating fevers that killed his military escorts. (He later touted his travels in long-winded accounts published as travelogues.) Though most of his early work was undertaken within a few hundred miles of St. Louis, one journey took him to a place few white men had gone before. In the spring of 1832, he secured a berth on the steamboat Yellowstone, about to embark from St. Louis on a journey 2,000 miles up the Missouri River. Steaming into each Indian settlement, the Yellowstone fired its cannon, terrifying natives, who fell to the ground or sacrificed animals to appease their gods. Catlin was mesmerized by the “soulmelting scenery.” He watched great herds of buffalo, antelope and elk roaming “a vast country of green fields, where the men are all red.” In three months on the Upper Missouri, working with great speed, Catlin executed no fewer than 135 paintings, sketching figures and faces, leaving details to be finished later. In July, near what is now Bismarck, North Dakota, he became one of the few white men ever to observe the torturous fertility ritual of the Mandan tribe known as O-kee-pa, which required young men to be suspended from the top of the medicine lodge by ropes anchored to barbs skewered in their chests. When displayed five years later, Catlin’s paintings of the ceremony drew skepticism. “The scenes described by Catlin existed almost entirely in the fertile imagination of that gentleman,” a scholarly journal observed. Though Catlin was unable to corroborate his observations—smallpox had all but wiped out the Mandan not long after his visit—subsequent research confirmed his stark renderings.

 

In 1836, despite the vehement protests of Sioux elders, Catlin insisted on visiting a sacred, red-stone quarry in southwestern Minnesota that provided the Sioux with the bowls for their ceremonial pipes. No Indian would escort him, and fur traders, angry about his letters in newspapers condemning them for corrupting the Indians, also refused. So Catlin and a companion traveled 360 miles round-trip on horseback. The unique red pipestone he found there today bears the name catlinite. “Man feels here the thrilling sensation, the force of illimitable freedom,” Catlin wrote, “there is poetry in the very air of this place.”

 

Except for his run-in over the quarry, Catlin maintained excellent relations with his various hosts. They escorted him through hostile areas and invited him to feasts of dog meat, beaver tail and buffalo tongue. “No Indian ever betrayed me, struck me with a blow, or stole from me a shilling’s worth of my property. . . ,” he later wrote. By 1836, his last year in the West, Catlin had visited 48 tribes. He would spend the rest of his life trying to market his work, leading him to the brink of ruin.

 

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