George Catlin (July 26, 1796 – December 23, 1872) was an American painter, author, and traveller who specialised in portraits of Native Americans in the Old West. Travelling to the American West five times during the 1830s, Catlin was the first white man to depict Plains Indians in their native territory.
George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Catlin had spent many hours hunting, fishing, and looking for American Indian artefacts. His fascination with Native Americans was kindled by his mother, who told him stories of the western frontier and how she was captured by a tribe when she was a young girl. Years later, a group of Native Americans came through Philadelphia dressed in their colourful outfits and made quite an impression on Catlin.
Catlin was just seven years old in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a three-year expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. In 1830, Catlin made his initial pilgrimage to St. Louis to meet William Clark and learn from him all he could of the western lands he hoped to visit. He would have only a short time to accomplish his goal—to capture with canvas and paint the essence of Indian life and culture. In that same year, the Indian Removal Act commenced the twelve-year action that would remove the remaining Indians from land east of the Mississippi. Within a few years, the Mandan would be decimated by smallpox; within a few decades, the number of buffalo would drop from millions to a few thousand, and the high prairies would be crosshatched by the plow and the railroad.
The Indian Gallery. In September 1837 Catlin returned East to open his Indian Gallery in New York. Initially, Eastern audiences did not know what to make of the brilliant face paint and the strange customs Catlin depicted; but Catlin had a flair for showmanship, and soon the tour became a popular success. The Indian Gallery travelled throughout the Eastern seaboard, garnering critical acclaim and large audiences. Despite this success, in 1839 the U.S. Senate voted not to purchase Catlin’s gallery and thereby support his project. Stung by this rejection, Catlin packed up the Indian Gallery and sailed for England. Here, too, the gallery was a tremendous success, and he was commanded to give a private showing to both England’s Queen Victoria and King Louis Philippe of France. In 1852, however, Catlin suffered bankruptcy, and he offered the Indian Gallery as collateral toward a loan that allowed him to pay off some of his creditors. He was never able to reclaim the original works, and he was forced to hastily produce a second, inferior group of paintings. Never fully escaping poverty, Catlin remained in Europe until 1870, returning to the United States only two years before his death.
A Powerful and Ambiguous Influence. Catlin’s legacy is complex. His paintings made an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the Plains Indians of the early nineteenth century, yet at the same time they are sometimes primitive in execution and, for all his ethnographic care. Catlin’s influence is very immense. He visualized the West and depicted Indians for a vast national and international audience. Further, his emphasis on first-hand observation and experience became part of the ethos of Western art.