Portraits on the Plains

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

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.

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.

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