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?

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

On September 23, 1837, the New YorkCommercial Advertiser announced the opening of an exhibit featuring lectures by Catlin, Indian portraits, “as well as Splendid Costumes—Paintings of their villages—Dances—Buffalo Hunts—Religious Ceremonies, etc.” Admission at Clinton Hall in New York City was 50 cents, and crowds of people lined up to pay it. When the show closed after three months, the artist took it to cities along the East Coast. But after a year, attendance began to dwindle, and Catlin fell on hard times. In 1837, he tried to sell his gallery to the federal government, but Congress dawdled. So in November 1839, with Clara expecting their second child and promising to join him the following year, Catlin packed his gallery, including a buffalo-hide tepee and two live bears, and sailed for England.


In London, Brussels, and at the Louvre in Paris, he packed houses with his “Wild West” show. He hired local actors to whoop in feathers and war paint and pose in tableaux vivants. In time he was joined by several groups of Indians (21 Ojibwe and 14 Iowa) who were touring Europe with promoters. Such luminaries as George Sand, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire admired Catlin’s artistry. But general audiences preferred the live Indians, especially after Catlin convinced the Ojibwe and the Iowa to reenact hunts, dances, even scalpings. In 1843, Catlin was presented to Queen Victoria in London, and two years later, to King Louis-Philippe in France. But renting halls, transporting eight tons of paintings and artifacts, and providing for his Indian entourage—as well as his family, which by 1844 included three daughters and a son—kept the painter perpetually in debt. In 1845, in Paris, Clara, his devoted wife of 17 years, contracted pneumonia and died. Then the Ojibwe got smallpox. Two died; the rest went back to the plains. The next year his 3-year-old son, George, succumbed to typhoid.


In 1848, Catlin and his daughters returned to London, where he tried to drum up interest in installing his gallery on a ship—a floating “Museum of Mankind”—that would visit seaports around the globe. But his dream came to nothing. He lectured on California’s gold rush and sold copies of his paintings, using the originals as collateral for loans. In 1852, his funds exhausted, the 56-year-old Catlin was thrown into a London debtor’s prison. His brother-in-law came to take Catlin’s young daughters back to America. The dejected artist later would write that he had “no other means on earth than my hands and my brush, and less than half a life, at best, before me.” He again offered to sell his gallery (which Senator Daniel Webster had called “more important to us than the ascertaining of the South Pole, or anything that can be discovered in the Dead Sea . . . ”) to the U.S. government. But Congress thought the price too steep, even when Catlin lowered it from $65,000 to $25,000. Finally, late that summer, Joseph Harrison, a wealthy Pennsylvania railroad tycoon for whom Catlin had secured a painting by the American historical artist Benjamin West, paid Catlin’s debts, acquired his gallery for $20,000 and shipped it from London to Philadelphia. It sat there in Harrison’s boiler factory, while Catlin—who had repaired to Paris with a handful of watercolors and a few copies of his originals that he had hidden from his creditors—set out to rebuild his life, and his gallery. From 1852 to 1860, he bounced between Europe, the Pacific Northwest and South and Central America painting Indians from the Amazon to Patagonia. Or did he? Some scholars, dubious because of the wildness of the accounts and the lack of documentation, doubt that he left Europe at all. Inany case, by 1870 the dogged artist had completed 300 paintings of South American Indians and had re-created from sketches some 300 copies of his original Indian Gallery portraits. “Now I am George Catlin again,” he wrote his brother just before returning to America in 1870. He exhibited his “Cartoon Gallery,” as he called the copies and his South American and other later works, in 1871 in New York City, but it did not draw crowds. The show, however, earned Catlin a powerful ally when it moved to the Smithsonian Institution later that year.


Although Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry thought Catlin’s paintings had “little value as works of art,” he needed them: a fire had just destroyed most of the Smithsonian’s collection of Indian paintings (works by John Mix Stanley and Charles Bird King). Henry offered Catlin both support and a home. For nine months, the artist, in his mid-70s, white-bearded and walking with a cane, lived in the SmithsonianCastle. In November 1872, Catlin left Washington to be with his daughters in New Jersey. He died there two months later at age 76. Among his final words were, “What will happen to my gallery?” Seven years after his death, Harrison’s widow gave the works acquired by her husband (some 450 of Catlin’s original paintings and enough buckskin and fur, war clubs, pipes, and more, to fill a third of a freight car) to the Smithsonian. The gallery was displayed there for seven years starting in 1883—the last comprehensive public show of both artifacts and paintings until this fall. Most of the works nowat the Renwick are originals, but there are also some copies from his Cartoon Collection, which was eventually returned to his daughters and later purchased by collector Paul Mellon, who gave most of it to the National Gallery of Art.


Catlin’s reputation remains as mixed today as ever. “He may end up being regarded as a B painter,” says cocurator Gurney, “but his best portraits contain a vitality and directnessthat equal almost anyone’s.” His greater contribution, undoubtedly, was his signal role in helping to change the perception of Native Americans. “Art may mourn when these people are swept from the earth,” he wrote, “and the artists of future ages may look in vain for another race so picturesque in their costumes, their weapons, their colours, their manly games, and their chase.”


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus