Portraits on the Plains | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Portraits on the Plains

Armed with easel, palette and pencil, George Catlin went west in the 1830s to paint the real "Wild West"

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Our object is a man, part artist, part adventurer, part showman, part idealist, the product of another age. George Catlin doesn't reside at the Smithsonian — he's been dead for more than a century — but hundreds of his paintings reside in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. And a number of his personal items are held by the National Museum of Natural History. These relics bring Catlin back to life, invigorated by his passion to capture on canvas the American Indians of the Wild West.

Catlin, a largely self-taught painter, was the first major white artist to portray the prairie tribes on their own turf. With smiles, gestures, often a few words translated by a trader or agent, he would get across to their chiefs what he wanted to do. Almost always they agreed to it readily. "I have been welcomed generally in their country," he wrote, "and treated to the best that they could give me, without any charges made for my board." Warriors of one tribe would escort him around enemy tribesmen, and "aided me in passing mountains and rivers with my awkward baggage...[and] no Indian ever betrayed me, struck me a blow, or stole from me a shilling's worth of my property...."

The artist sat for his own portrait in 1849, by his contemporary William Fisk. It resides in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. We see a trim, athletic man, dark-haired, with determination in his eyes. He looks capable of making his way among the often unpredictable tribes of the Great Plains. But the portrait doesn't reveal fully the irrepressible, almost reckless enthusiasm that sent this Pennsylvanian there in the first place. George Catlin was born at the tail end of the 18th century, in the village of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and moved with his family up the Susquehanna into New York State. He writes that in this handsome countryside he spent his school years "with books reluctantly held in one hand, and a rifle or fishing-pole firmly and affectionately grasped in the other." Along with the outdoor life, he loved sketching and painting. But in deference to his lawyer father, he studied law in Litchfield, Connecticut, and began a practice of his own in Pennsylvania.

Then the urge to paint portraits intruded so forcibly that he tossed aside his law career and set up a studio in Philadelphia. Here, in the 1820s, the artist saw a delegation of Plains Indians on their way to Washington to greet their "Great Father" at the traditional Presidential meeting with tribal leaders from the West. Fascinated, Catlin vowed that "nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian."

He broached the idea to friends and family, getting nothing but shocked surprise and dour predictions, but made the break anyway "from my wife and my aged parents." Again, he tossed in a career, this time as a socially acceptable Philadelphia portrait painter (he'd already painted New York's Gov. DeWitt Clinton), and took off.

In the spring of 1830, Catlin arrived in St. Louis, the jumping off point for the West, and was greeted by Gen. William Clark who, with Meriwether Lewis, had set out to cross the Plains 26 years before. Clark, now Superintendent of Indian Affairs, took the artist along on a trip up the Mississippi to Prairie du Chien to see a gathering of tribes and sample their costumes and customs.

After a trip East, apparently to raise more funds and visit his wife (so much for his dramatic vow to break all ties), in March 1832 Catlin was back in the West again. He boarded a steamboat belonging to the American Fur Company. Belching smoke, the Yellowstone thumped and wheezed up the Missouri for three months before depositing the artist beside the mouth of her namesake river, at today's Fort Union, North Dakota. Catlin moved into a bastion of the fur company fort, a trading center for Indians. "My easel stands before me, and the cool breech of a twelve-pounder makes me a comfortable seat," he noted. Here he brought many of his subjects to sit for him.

"I have this day been painting a portrait of the head chief of the Blackfoot nation ... surrounded by his own braves and warriors, and also gazed at by his enemies...." Blackfeet, Crow, Ojibwa, Assiniboin, Sioux, he painted them all, learning to spot their moods as well as to read the significance of their adornments, from moccasin decorations to scalp locks.

He headed for a Mandan village near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, canoeing downstream with two trapper-guides, Bogard and Ba'tiste. Catlin describes "copses and clusters of plum trees and gooseberries, and wild currants, loaded down with their fruit" and "wild rose bushes...shedding sweet aroma."

One morning Bogard, a "wide-awake" Yankee, roused the others to "look at old Cale!" They found a huge grizzly ("Caleb" to the mountain men) that had pawed over everything in the canoe, spreading out their belongings in its search for food. But in land so rich in game, they could quickly restore their larder.

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