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George Catlin
Painting by William Fisk of George Catlin among the Blackfoot Indians, 1849.

George Catlin: A Biography

George Catlin was a painter and writer specializing in the artistic preservation of the natives of North America. Born on July 26, 1796, he was raised during the time when the American frontier inched itself further and further west, often destroying the indigenous people of those lands. He was born in Wilkes-Barre, a town in the center of Wyoming Valley, in Pennsylvania. His parents had moved there at the close of the Revolutionary war. As a child he preferred outdoor sports such as fishing and hunting to his studies. He himself said,

"The early part of my life was whiled away, apparently, somewhat in vain, with books reluctantly held in one hand, and a rifle or fishing-pole firmly and affectionately grasped in the other."

As a child he became extremely interested in the North American Indians. He spent time exploring and hunting for Indian artifacts. His interest may have been sparked by the tales his mother told him of the time she and Catlin's grandmother had been captured by a Native American tribe when she was a girl. He may also have been influenced by his Native American friend On-o-gon-way. It is likely that this relationship helped Catlin realize that the local Indians were not the animalistic savages that society wished to portray them as.

Despite his own interests he began to study to be a lawyer. While this pleased his family he would only abandon it few years later. With regards to his education he said,

"At the urgent request of my father, who was a practicing lawyer, I was prevailed upon to abandon these favorite themes, and also my occasional dabblings with the brush, which had secured already a corner in my affections; and I commenced reading the law for a profession, under the direction of Reeve and Gould, of Connecticut. I attended the lectures of these learned judges for two years – was admitted to the bar – and practiced the law...in my native land, for the term of two or three years; when I very deliberately sold my law library and all (save my rifle and fishing-tackle), and converting their proceeds into brushes and paint pots, I commenced the art of painting in Philadelphia, without teacher or adviser."

It was thus that he abandoned law to become a portrait painter in 1823. Five years later he married Clara Bartlett Gregory from a wealthy family. They eventually had four children. A Seneca Indian named Red Jacket became the subject of Catlin's first Native American portrait. However, Catlin's vision of capturing the dying races of North American Indians was inspired by a delegation of Indians moving through Pennsylvania from the West. The visit left a lasting impression on George Catlin who described them as,

"A delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the 'Far West,' arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty, - with shield and helmet, - with tunic and manteau, - tinted and tasselled off, exactly for the painter's palette!"

This experience would eventually inspire Catlin to travel all over North America, from the Great Lakes to Florida, and would also be the cause for his travels to Europe and Brazil. He began his journeys with none other than William Clark of the Louis and Clark expedition. Exploring the frontier at last, Catlin was determined to fulfill his dream.

"With these views firmly fixed – armed, equipped, and supplied, I started out in the year 1832, and penetrated the vast and pathless wilds which are familiarly denominated the great 'Far West' of the North American continent. Black and blue cloth and civilization are destined, not only to veil but to obliterate the grace and beauty of Nature, Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, is surely the most beautiful model for the painter, --and the country from which he hails is unquestionably the best study or school of the arts in the world: such I am sure, from the models I have seen, is the wilderness of North America. And the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the life-time of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian."

This ambition drove Catlin to make five trips in six years, using the city of St. Louis as a base. During that time he visited over 50 tribes, painting and preserving their culture as he went. Some tribes soon after would be exterminated. A Sioux clan, for example, was wiped out by small pox just a few years after George Catlin visited them to document their culture. It was Catlin's desire to visit tribes away from the influence of modern civilization, which he did when he climbed the Mississippi River to areas of land untouched by the white man. It was there that he recorded some of his most acclaimed artwork.

Catlin worked under the premonition that the North American Indians were a "dying race." As such, he took special care to document the Indians in their natural element. He painted their clothing, artifacts, customs, and even their recreational activities. Were it not for him we might not know much of these people, many of whom died soon after.

"[I am] lending a hand to a dying nation, who have no historians or biographers of their own to portray with fidelity their native looks and history; thus snatching from a hasty oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity, and perpetuating it, as a fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race..."

"It has been with these, mostly, that I have spent my time, and of these, chiefly, and their customs, that the following Letters treat. Their habits (and theirs alone) as we can see them transacted, are native, and such as I have wished to fix and preserve for future ages..."

Catlin played the part of a helpless bystander, observing the decline of that "noble race" but unable to keep it from doing so. His only method of counteracting the decay was his careful and tedious artistic preservation. His writings are often sad at the steady extermination of such a people, as the white man slowly grew and expanded. Nothing could be done.

"The tribes of the red men of North America, as a nation of human beings, are on their wane; that (to use their own very beautiful figure) they are fast traveling to the shades of their fathers, towards the setting sun; and that the traveler who would see these people in their native simplicity and beauty, must needs be hastily on his way to the prairies and Rocky Mountains, or he will see them only as they are now seen on the frontiers, as a basket of dead game, – harassed, chased, bleeding, and dead; with their plumage and colours despoiled; to be gazed amongst in vain for some system or moral, or for some scale by which to estimate their true native character, other than that which has too often recorded them but a dark and unintelligible mass of cruelty and barbarity."

Catlin realized during his travels that, contrary to the common assumption at the time, the Native Americans were not "savages." He felt it his duty to prove otherwise. In 1836 he set up an exhibition of over 500 paintings, in an attempt to demonstrate the natural beauty that the "dying race" held. However, the exhibition was only moderately well received in the United States with mild interest. Nonetheless, Catlin remained convinced that the Indians were perhaps more civilized at a basic level than the white man. He said of them,

"I have roamed about from time to time during seven or eight years, visiting and associating with some three or four hundred thousand of these people, under an almost infinite variety of circumstances; and from the very many and decided voluntary acts of their hospitality and kindness, I feel bound to pronounce them, by nature, a kind and hospitable people. I have been welcomed generally in their country, and treated to the best that they could give me, without any charges made for my board; they have often escorted me through their enemies' country at some hazard to their own lives, and aided me in passing mountains and rivers with my awkward baggage; and under all of these circumstances of exposure, no Indian ever betrayed me, struck me a blow, or stole from me a shilling's worth of my property that I am aware of."

His inability to prove the civilized nature of the Native Americans may be why he later moved to England. The exhibition was received well in London; however, fortune did not favor Catlin. While in London his wife and son both died of illness and his wife's family recalled the remaining children back to the United States. In 1852 he went bankrupt in London and was forced to sell many of his paintings. He moved back to the United States in 1870, but society remained uninterested in his work. Two years later, in 1872, he died with much of his life's work unappreciated.

In George Catlin's lifetime he traveled extensively throughout North America, captured the lives of Native Americans, many now exterminated, produced over 600 paintings, and wrote many books on the Indian cultures of North America. A French critic, Charles Baudelaire said, "Mr. Catlin has captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way." In response to society's general disregard for his paintings he said,

"I am fully convinced, from a long familiarity with these people, that the Indian's misfortune has consisted chiefly in our ignorance of their true native character and disposition, which has always held us at a distrustful distance from them; inducing us to look upon them in no other light than that of a hostile foe, and worthy only of that system of continued warfare and abuse that has been forever waged against them."

It has only been in recent years that the enormity of what George Catlin did has been fully realized. Thanks to him, we can begin to repair that "ignorance" and truly appreciate the North American Indians for what they truly were and are. We owe Catlin a dept of gratitude for the brilliant and sincere portrayal of a genuinely civilized and magnificent race.

ScienceViews Writer: Jason Hamilton.

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