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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The artist moved in among the Mandans, whose round lodges had sheltered Lewis and Clark. They were fascinated by Catlin's skill. Seeing his portraits, "many of the gaping multitude commenced yelping; some were stamping off in the jarring dance...hundreds covered their mouths," and the whole village tried to feel his flesh, braves to shake his hand, children to touch his legs, "not unlike the nibbling of little fish, when I have been standing in deep water...." Catlin noted that his visitors, disturbed by the way the eyes in a portrait seemed to follow them, would try to view it from the side and so avoid the offense of staring directly at a chief.

He painted a rite of passage in which elders would stab through a young man's flesh, pinched up at his pectorals or shoulder blades, drive wooden skewers through the wounds, and lash rawhide cords to them. Then they'd haul the youth high, to hang in stoic silence from his tortured flesh.

Catlin moved down the Missouri to what was then Fort Pierre and visited the Sioux. Here he got into trouble by deciding to paint the profile of one important and popular warrior, leaving half his face out of the picture. Another Indian, "a troublesome fellow," sneered that the warrior was only half a man. A duel followed, the bad guy killed the good guy, and Catlin got blamed. He was lucky to escape. He continued downstream to Fort Leavenworth and back to St. Louis, no longer a tenderfoot. He learned to slip easily into the life of the prairie tribes. He even hunted buffalo with them, and his paintings of the dashing horse racing beside the mighty herd while its rider swung left with drawn bow helped define a genre for other artists of the West. He visited the Arkansas Territory and Texas, ventured from New Orleans far up the Mississippi, and then down into the Deep South, where he got the Seminole chief Osceola to sit for him — "a most extraordinary man, and one entitled to a better fate."

He routinely returned East to see Clara and to fill out some of his hastily done portraits. Then he'd be off again. He describes how he traveled with Charley, his horse, with "a bear-skin and a buffalo robe being spread upon his saddle, and a coffee-pot and tin cup tied to it also—with a few pounds of hard biscuit in my portmanteau — with my fowling-piece in my hand, and my pistols in my belt — with my sketch-book slung on my back, and a small pocket compass in my pocket...."

The American Art Museum's George Gurney, curator of the collection that includes the Catlins, points out that most of the Catlin canvases are the same size — about 2 feet by 2 1/2 feet. And the corners of the frames are small raised squares, originally built up with padding, so the paintings could be easily stacked. Why stacked? Because Catlin had a touch of P. T. Barnum in him. By 1837, he'd painted some 500 canvases, and he wanted to show his work.

That year he opened his Indian Gallery exhibition in New York, doubtless feeling that if he could make it there he could make it anywhere. It was a hit, and afterward he took it on the road to other cities. In 1840 it opened in London and again drew huge crowds. Besides his paintings, Catlin displayed a grand collection (he said his freight weighed eight tons) of Indian costumes, tools and weapons, plus two live grizzlies—and eventually the show included some actual Indians who were agreeable to miming the hunt, the dance, even the scalping — all deliciously exciting to the English. They lionized the artist; he was presented to Queen Victoria, and his sellout display — really the first "Wild West Show" — earned him enough to pay off some long-standing debts.

He took his show to the Continent. Again, it was a smash hit. Louis Philippe, then "King of the French," adored it and befriended the artist. But thorns lurked in Catlin's bed of roses. His family and his Indian performers sickened in the European climate. Clara died of pneumonia in 1845, and their young son of typhoid a year later. Louis Philippe abdicated in the uprising of 1848 that produced the short-lived Second Republic. Catlin's debts mounted. He tried — as he had before — to sell his entire collection to the government, but despite the best efforts of Daniel Webster and William Seward, Congress declined. Finally he found a buyer in Joseph Harrison, a Philadelphia manufacturer, who purchased the entire collection of paintings and artifacts and stored it in a boiler factory. It moldered there, barely surviving a fire, until the Smithsonian eventually rescued its remnants.

In the meantime, the sale paid off Catlin's major debts. Partly to duck the minor ones (or so it was rumored) he sailed for South America, painting scenes and natives there as he had in North America. For years he wrote copiously while traveling in South America and Europe. By the time he returned, life had moved on, and he couldn't catch it. Toward the end of Catlin's life, Joseph Henry, first Smithsonian Secretary, invited him to display his newer work—some 600 paintings—in the Castle, and gave him a room for a studio between the two tallest towers. He worked there for almost two years, a haggard old man stumping out with his cane at day's end to walk to his rented room, peopled only by memories and dreams.

One was his old hope for a government preserve "where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse....A nation's Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature's beauty." When our first national park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872, the artist's last year of life, Catlin probably muttered at the lack of galloping Indians. But likely he thought it a good step—and perhaps felt that (as some Indians might say) it was now a good day to die.

By Edwards Park


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