The American artist George Catlin became fascinated with Indians in the early 1800s and traveled extensively throughout North America so he could document them on canvas. In his paintings and writings Catlin portrayed Indian life in great detail.
“Catlin’s Indian Gallery,” an exhibit which opened in New York City in 1837, was an early opportunity for people living in an eastern city to appreciate the lives of the Indians still living on the western frontier. It was, in a sense, the first "western."
Early Life of George Catlin
George Catlin was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania on July 26, 1796. His mother and grandmother had been held hostage during an Indian uprising in Pennsylvania known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre some 20 years earlier, and Catlin would have heard many stories about Indians as a child. He spent much of his childhood wandering in the woods and searching for Indian artifacts.
As a young man Catlin trained to be a lawyer, and he briefly practiced law in Wilkes Barre. But he developed a passion for painting. By 1821, at the age of 25, Catlin was living in Philadelphia and trying to pursue a career as a portrait painter.
While in Philadelphia Catlin enjoyed visiting the museum administered by Charles Wilson Peale, which contained numerous items related to Indians and also to the expedition of Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of western Indians visited Philadelphia, Catlin painted them and decided to learn all he could of their history.
In the late 1820s Catlin painted portraits, including one of New York governor DeWitt Clinton. At one point Clinton gave him a commission to create lithographs of scenes from the newly opened Erie Canal, for a commemorative booklet.
In 1828 Catlin married Clara Gregory, who was from a prosperous family of merchants in Albany, New York. Despite his happy marriage, Catlin desired to venture off see the west.
George Catlin Travels In the Western United States
In 1830, Catlin realized his ambition to visit the west, and arrived in St. Louis, which was then the edge of the American frontier. He met William Clark, who, a quarter-century earlier, had led the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Clark held an official position as the superintendent of Indian affairs. He was impressed by Catlin’s desire to document Indian life, and provided him with passes so he could visit Indian reservations.
The aging explorer shared with Catlin an extremely valuable piece of knowledge, Clark’s map of the west. It was, at the time, the most detailed map of North America west of the Mississippi.
Throughout the 1830s Catlin traveled extensively, often living among the Indians. In 1832 he began to paint the Sioux, who were at first highly suspicious of his ability to record detailed images on paper. However, one of the chiefs declared that Catlin’s “medicine” was good, and he was allowed to paint the tribe extensively.
Catlin often painted portraits of individual Indians, but he also depicted daily life, recording scenes of rituals and even sports. In one painting Catlin depicts himself and an Indian guide wearing the pelts of wolves while crawling in the prairie grass to closely observe a herd of buffalo.
George Catlin Exhibits “Catlin’s Indian Gallery”
In 1837 Catlin opened a gallery of his paintings in New York City, billing it as “Catlin’s Indian Gallery.” It could be considered the first “Wild West” show, as it revealed the exotic life of the Indians of the west to city dwellers.
Catlin wanted his exhibit to be taken seriously as historic documentation of Indian life, and he endeavored to sell his collected paintings to the US Congress. One of his great hopes was that his paintings would be the centerpiece of a national museum devoted to Indian life.
The Congress was not interested in purchasing Catlin’s paintings, and when he exhibited them in other eastern cities they were not as popular as they had been in New York. Frustrated, Catlin left for England, where he found success showing his paintings in London.
Catlin’s Classic Book on Indian Life
In 1841 Catlin published, in London, a book titled Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. The book, more than 800 pages in two volumes, contained a vast wealth of material gathered during Catlin’s travels among the Indians. The book went through a number of editions.
At one point in the book Catlin detailed how the enormous herds of buffalo on the western plains were being destroyed because robes made of their fur had become so popular in eastern cities.
Perceptively noting what today we would recognize as an ecological disaster, Catlin made a startling proposal. He suggested that the government should set aside enormous tracts of western lands to preserve them in their natural state.
George Catlin can thus be credited with first suggesting the creation of National Parks.
George Catlin's Later Life
Catlin returned to the United States, and again tried to get the Congress to buy his paintings. He was unsuccessful. He was swindled in some land investments and was in financial distress. He decided to return to Europe.
In Paris, Catlin managed to settle his debts by selling the bulk of his collection of paintings to an American businessman, who stored them in a locomotive factory in Phildelphia. Catlin’s wife died in Paris, and Catlin himself moved on to Brussels, where he would live until returning to America in 1870.
Catlin died in Jersey City, New Jersey in late 1872. His obituary in the New York Times lauded him for his work documenting Indian life, and criticized the Congress for not buying his collection of paintings.
The collection of Catlin paintings stored in the factory in Philadelphia was eventually acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, where it resides today. Other Catlin works are in museums around the United States and Europe.