George Catlin Paintings
1832, American Art Museum
An ambitious artist created an invaluable visual record of a threatened culture
In the 1830s, as U.S. authorities began forcing Native Americans from their homelands, Catlin, of Pennsylvania, visited more than 50 tribes to paint their vanishing way of life. His nearly 500 portraits countered the common stereotypes, showing Indians as noble individuals. “I was luckily born in time to see these people in their native dignity and beauty and independence, and to be a living witness to the cruelties with which they have been treated worse than dogs,” he wrote. Catlin was criticized for hiring actors to perform Indian war dances to promote a touring gallery of his paintings, and fell deeply into debt. In 1879, seven years after his death, they were donated to the Smithsonian.