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(American, 1796-1872)

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I have, for many years past, contemplated the noble races of red men who are now spread over these trackless forests and boundless prairies, melting away at the approach of civilization. Their rights invaded, their morals corrupted, their lands wrested fro m them, their customs changed, and therefore lost to the world; and they at last sunk into the earth, and the ploughshare turning the sod over their graves, and I have flown to their rescue--not of their lives or of their race (for they are doomed and must perish), but to the rescue of their looks and their modes, at which the acquisitive world may hurl their poison and every besom of destruction, and trample them down and crush them to death; yet, phoenix-like, they may rise from the "stain on a painter's palette," and live once again upon canvass (sic ), and stand forth for centuries yet to come, the living monuments of a noble race. For this purpose, I have designed to visit every tribe of Indians on the Continent, if my life should be spared; for the purpose of procuring portraits of distinguished Indians, of both sexes in each tribe, painted in their native costume; accompanied with pictures of their villages, domestic habits, games, mysteries, religious ceremonies, &c. with anecdotes, traditions, and history of their respective nations.

If I should live to accomplish my design, the result of my labours will doubtless be interesting to future ages; who will have little else left from which to judge of the original inhabitants of this simple race of beings, who require but a few years more of the march of civilization and death, to deprive them all of their native customs and character.

George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition
of the North American Indians, 1841


  • TRAVELS, 1831-1833
  • TRAVELS, 1833-1836
  • WASHINGTON, 1838
  • LONDON, 1839
  • PARIS, 1845
  • THE LASALLE SERIES, 1846-1848
  • ENGLAND 1848-1852
  • BRUSSELS,1860


    Early exposure to Indian lore may have sparked George Catlin's lifelong interest in native American culture. In a frequently quoted, albeit highly romanticized, autobiographical account, the artist related colorful tales of his mother's capture and safe r eturn by a band of Iroquois and his own vivid memories of a friendly Oneida tribesman who was murdered when Catlin was about ten years old. Nearly two decades later, the legend continues, a chance encounter with a delegation of Plains Indians passing through Ph iladelphia rekindled the artist's youthful fascination. Inspired by their pristine grandeur, Catlin dedicated himself to the monumental task of documenting all Indian tribes from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, vowing nothing short of the loss of his life would prevent him from visiting their country and becoming their historian.

    Clearly, Catlin recognized the threat westward expansion posed to the Indians and his concern for preserving their native culture was genuine; yet, contrary to his retrospective -- and somewhat self-serving -- narrative, it is highly doubtful that altrui sm was the sole factor motivating the artist's decision to go west. In his comprehensive study of Catlin's career, William Truettner casts new light on the issue by suggesting t hat the painter actually may have chosen this unconventional route as a practical means of avoiding artistic competition and critical rebuke. The fact that his fateful decision to devote his life to Indian studies may have crystallized in direct response t o the inauspicious professional situation in which he found himself during the late 1820s should in no way diminish the artist's extraordinary accomplishments. Through sheer strength of will and remarkable perseverance, the irrepressible Catlin was able to overcome these obstacles and forge a new, extraordinarily diverse career as an artist, lecturer, author, explorer, historian, ethnographer, and entrepreneur -- work to which he would devote himself for the next forty years.


    From the outset, Catlin's professional life was somewhat unorthodox. Acceding to his father's wishes, he agreed to study law in Litchfield, Connecticut, but concurrently established a more temperamentally congenial alternative career as a painter of portr ait miniatur es. After passing the bar exam in Connecticut, Catlin returned home to rural Pennsylvania, where he practiced law with his older brother for three years. During this time, he gradually resolved to "convert my law library into paintpots and brushes, and to pursue painting as my future, and, apparently more agreeable profession."

    By 1821 the young artist had moved to Philadelphia, where he exhibited some early work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Catlin remained in the city for approximatel y four years and probably undertook some formal art study during this period, but little definitive information exists regarding his early training. He certainly knew the work of the celebrated Philadelphia portraitist Thomas Sully, and he became close fri ends with Sully's future son-in-law, John Neagle, a fellow artist at the Academy, who may have provided Catlin with even more direct access to the master. In addition to painting portrait miniatures in Philadelphia, Catlin received several out-of-town comm issions. He was invited to Albany to paint DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York, in 1824 and the following year he was hired to create a series of lithographs depicting construction sites along the Erie Canal.

    Catlin probably had settled in New York by 1826, the year he was elected to the National Academy of Design. He planned to enter several paintings in that influential institution's annual exhibition, but indignantly withdrew the works, possibly after learn ing that they were to be hung in an o bscure location. The headstrong young artist resigned from the organization the following year and did not show his work again in New York until 1828, when he exhibited twelve paintings at the American Academy of Fine Arts. Catlin married, and for the nex t few years he and his wife Clara divided their time between New York City, her family's home in Albany, Washington, and Richmond. Although work was scarce during much of this time, in 1829 the artist did receive a relatively prestigious commission to pai nt a group portrait of the one-hundred-one Virginia legislators assembled at the State Constitutional Convention in Richmond.

    Despite this minor coup, Catlin was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the progress of his career. After more than a decade as a painter, he had attained only marginal success. Like many artists of his day, Catlin believed that history painting would be a far more elevated vehicle for his creative talents than portraiture; yet, when forced to vie for patronage with more estab lished -- and more skilled-- contemporaries, he had great difficulty obtaining commissions for this type of work. Stung by harsh criticism of his painting by influential critics such as William Dunlap, who described him as "utterly incompetent," Catlin may have began to doubt his ability to compete with better-known artists. Surely, he must have realized that an alternate, highly unconventional career spent traveling throughout the western territories painting Indians would offer him adventure and almost ce rtain fame, since regardless of the critical evaluation of his art in purely aesthetic terms, the historical significance of his pioneering contribution could not be denied.


    Political sentiment against the Indians had intensified during the late 1820s, and pending Congressional legislation threatened to mandate resettlement of all tribes living east of the Mississippi. President Andrew Jackson fueled the crisis by proclaiming :

    Humanity has often wept over the fate of t he aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb t he last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another . . . . What good man would prefer a county covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns and prosperous farms. . . .

    In light of these escalating racial tensions, immediate action seemed imperative if Catlin were to institute his ambitious plan. Realizing that his departure could no longer be postponed, he ignored the protests of his family and set out for Saint Louis, Missouri, in the spring of 1830.

    With the aid and encouragement of General William Clark, t he renowned explorer who was then serving as Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Western tribes and Governor of the Missouri Territory, the artist gained access to numerous midwestern tribes and was able to study them in great detail. Scholars differ widely as to the chronology of his travels, and Catlin's own itineraries --reconstructed in later years-- often are unreliable. It is known that the first Indian portraits he painted in the West were executed near Fort Leavenworth in northeastern Kansas in the late summer or early fall of 1830. After a season of intensive field work during which he produced numerous summary sketches, Catlin returned east in the late fall, visiting New York, Albany, and Washington. Rather than traveling extensively the following year, he probably spent most of 1831 finishing paintings based on the field studies he had created the previous season.

    TRAVELS, 1831-1833

    Catlin was anxious to travel even further west, seeking even more distant Indian tribes that presumably were less likely to have been compromised by their contact with white men. He returned to Saint Louis in December, 1831, and the following spring he undertook an arduous three m onth journey on the Yellowstone River to Fort Union, North Dakota, two thousand miles upriver. During the voyage, Catlin painted landscapes from the deck of the steamboat, and after arriving at his destination, he began painting genre scenes of Indian life in addition to straightforward portraits. He kept extensive notes to document his travels and made numerous notebook sketches. These detailed verbal and pictorial accounts proved an invaluable reference while Catlin was writing his major study,Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of North American Indians, and he would return to them again late in his career when recreating a number of lost works.

    While in the Upper Missouri territories, the prolific artist often completed five or six paintings a day. Returning south with French-Canadian trappers, he visited the Mandan villages, where he was permitted to witness and document a sacred four day initiation ceremony. Some scholars have suggested that Catlin's month long, in-depth study of the now extinct Mandan tribe constitutes his greatest ethnographic achievement. In the summer of 1838, only six years after his visit, the tribe was virtually annihilated by a smallpox epidemic inadvertently introduced by fur traders. Catlin reported t hat nearly half of the contaminated Indians, realizing that death was inevitable, "destroyed themselves with their knives, with their guns, and by dashing their brains out by leaping head-foremost from a thirty foot ledge of rocks in front of the village." Within months, fewer than forty of the two thousand member tribe Mandans remained alive, and those who had survived were enslaved, murdered, or assimilated by neighboring tribes. The virulent disease ravaged adjacent tribes, as well, killing some 25,000 B lackfoot, Cheyenne, and Crow Indians before gradually spreading west to the Pacific, leaving a trail of death and devastation in its wake. Appalled by the tragic loss, Catlin lamented, "What an illustration is this of the wickedness of mercenary white men. "

    TRAVELS, 1833-1836

    Contrary to information the artist published years later, Catlin probably did not travel west in 1833; he most likely took time off to complete works begun the previous season. He exhibited some one- hundred-forty paintings in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and possibly Louisville that year, and he may have spent part of the winter in New Orleans. In the spring of 1834 Catlin accepted an invitation to join the first U.S. military expedition to the Southwest, where he encountered little known tribes such as the Comanche in Oklahoma. During this arduous journey, the artist -- along with many in his party-- became seriously ill with fever. More than a hundred in the group perished. After several weeks of recupera tion at Fort Gibson, Catlin made a solitary twenty-five day, five hundred fifty mile trip back to Saint Louis on horseback. He and his wife, who had been living there with friends during her husband's extended absence, sailed to New Orleans, before moving on to Pensacola, Florida, where they visited one of his brothers for the winter. He returned to New Orleans, where he lectured and exhibited some work in the spring of 1835. Catlin then traveled north to Fort Snelling (on the Upper Mississippi near St. Pau l, Minnesota), where he painted the Ojibwas and Eastern Sioux. He also traveled in Iowa that year, painting Sauk and Fox Indians.

    Catlin shipped his art east and began planning an exhibition for the late spring of 1836. His wife, who was expecting their first child, had returned to be with her family in Albany. When she suffered a miscarriage, Catlin abruptly cancelled the schedule d Buffalo show and in June set out in search of the Pipe Stone Quarry in southwestern Minnesota, a legendary site where Indi ans of many tribes garnered material for their peace pipes. Formerly this land had been considered neutral territory -- a sacred place where enemies could meet in harmony in accordance with the wishes of the Great Spirit. By the time of Catlin's visit, how ever, it was controlled by the Sioux, who detained the artist and his English traveling companion in an attempt to restrict their access. Catlin persevered, however, even managing to collect some of the prized mineral, which later was named "Catlinite" in his honor.


    This brief overview highlights only a small sampling of the extraordinary travels George Catlin undertook between 1830 and 1836, when the artist visited some forty-eight tribes and completed approximately five hundred paintings. In his art of this period Catlin placed far greater emphasis on factually recording the lives and exotic customs of his subjects than on traditional academic aesthetic concerns. He generally rendered individual portraits more carefully than group pictures, but even the most hastily executed oil sketches have a powerful visual impact. For logistical reasons, Catlin restricted his palette to about a dozen vividly colored, quick-drying, and easily transportable pigments that were well suited for painting out-of-doors. He applied this paint thinly to prevent cracking when the canvases were rolled and developed a cursory visual shorthand technique which served his reportorial intentions well. Because he was forced to work rapid ly, he generally would render facial likeness carefully, and then summarily sketch the figures with broad sepia outlines and earth tones, adding only suggestions of his subjects' colorful costumes and accoutrements. The artist planned to complete these fie ld works back in the studio, but many remained unfinished. Consequently, the awkward passages and anatomical discrepancies found in Catlin's paintings may be a direct result of his unusual working methods, rather than an indication of limited skill. It sho uld be noted, too, that despite myriad, often self-imposed, technical constraints and an admittedly naive stylistic approach, Catlin's obvious love and respect for his subjects and his prescient awareness of their vulnerability in the face of civilization' s onslaught helped him formulate a unique artistic vision of American Indian life in the mid-nineteenth century.


    Catlin planned to open a museum in which native American costumes and artifacts would be prese rved for posterity, and to that end he assembled an impressive collection that he hoped to put on public view along with his paintings. He spent the winter of 1836-1837 in upstate New York, organizing vast quantities of material and preparing what came to be called his "Indian Gallery" for exhibition. The installation went on view in Albany and Troy, New York, in the spring and summer, before opening in New York City on September 25th, 1837. Catlin published his first catalogue that fall, and spent a great deal of time lecturing and editing his journals for subsequent publication.


    Public misconceptions about Indians were rife at the time, and viewers often doubted the veracity of Catlin's tales or found his underlying message politically indefensible. Because he recognized the urgency of the Indians' plight and believed his art mig ht spark political action in support of the Indians, the artist sought to influence congressional legislation. He also promoted the establishment of a national p ark for the preservation of the Indians' natural habitat, but that avant garde idea proved politically untenable to a nation blinded by dreams of Manifest Destiny. Catlin vehemently opposed the fur companies' sponsorship of the whiskey trade and the govern ment's practice of signing dishonorable treaties that displaced the Indians and plundered their land. He wrote:

    Their country was entered by white men, but a few hundred years since; and thirty millions of these are now scuffling for the goods and luxuries of life . . . over the bones and ashes of twelve millions of red men; six millions of whom have fallen victims to the small-pox, and the remainder to the sword, the bayonet, and whiskey; all of which means of their death and destruction have been introduc ed and visited upon them by acquisitive white men; and by white men, also, whose forefathers were welcomed and embraced in the land where the poor Indian met and fed them with "ears of green corn and with pemican ( sic )." Of the two millions remaining alive at this time, about 1,400,000 are already the miserable living victims and dupes of white man's cupidity, degraded, discouraged, and lost in the bewildering maze that is produced by the use of whiskey and its concomitant vices; and the remaining number ar e yet unroused and unenticed from their wild haunts or their primitive modes, by the dread or love of white man and his allurements.

    WASHINGTON, 1838

    In January, 1838, Catlin received a government commission to paint the Seminole leader, Osceola and four other chiefs wh o were incarcerated at Fort Moultrie, [in] South Carolina. Osceola died shortly after posing for the artist, who then refused to deliver the pictures to Washington, realizing that his portrait of the martyred Seminole now would be worth far more than the g overnment initially had been willing to pay. He exhibited these portraits independently at the Stuyvesant Institute in New York, and later that year he published lithographic versions of the works, hoping to elicit wider public sympathy and to call attent ion, yet again, to the government's severe and inhumane Indian policy. On a more practical level, Catlin surely realized that the controversy surrounding Osceola's recent and untimely death would pique interest in his Indian Gallery and help promote revenues.

    In April, 1838, Catlin put his art on view in Washington, D.C., where the United States Congress reportedly was considering authorizing the purchase of his entire collection for $150,000. When no substantive offer was extended, the artist moved the Indian Gallery to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. With costs for publicity, storage, transportation, and site rentals mounting as audiences dwindled, Catlin threatened to move his show abroad, where he imagined audiences would be more appreciative. The artist, viewing relocation as a last resort, actually was trying to generate a groundswell of popular support in the press that would prompt government intervention. He continued negotiating the sale of his collection, but federal officials he contact ed showed little sustained interest in this work, even after he had substantially lowered the purchase price to less than half the original rate. Following final showings in Philadelphia and New York, he set sail for England in November, 1839, accompanied by the eight tons of freight that comprised the Indian Gallery. He would not return home for more than thirty years.

    LONDON, 1839

    Catlin optimistically took a three year option on exhibition space in London's Egyptian Hall and opened his show to the public in January, 1840. The installation included nearly five hundred paintings, a Crow wigwam, thousands of costumes, artifacts, weapons, and --at least according to some reports -- two caged grizzly bears. British audiences seemed quite en thusiastic and Catlin delighted in his success. He quickly achieved near-celebrity status in London. Inevitably, though, as the novelty of his presentation wore off and public curiosity waned, Catlin was forced to rely on his entrepreneurial skill to gene rate publicity and further stimulate revenues. At first, the flamboyant painter illustrated his lectures on native American culture with mannequins dressed as Indians. He later initiated tableaux vivants , staged re-enactments of Indian dances, songs, and war rituals performed by twenty white men --including the artist's nephew-- sporting native costumes.

    In 1841 Catlin published Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of North American Indians at his own expense in London; line drawings of three-hundred-twelve of his paintings were reproduced as engravings in this two volume book. While his literary effort received good critical reviews, publication and distribution were costly and Catlin's financial gains were minimal. Deciding to not r enew the third year option on his leased exhibition space, he moved the Indian Gallery to Liverpool, where it remained on view through the summer of 1842. He then stored his collection and toured northern England, Ireland, and Scotland with his performing troupe of ersatz Indians during the winter and spring of 1842-43.

    Catlin seriously considered closing the show and returning to the United States when Arthur Rankin, a North American promoter, brought a group of Ojibwa Indians to London in the spring of 1843. Rankin convinced Catlin that by hiring the Indians, he would be able to revitalize commercial interest and lend authenticity to the Indian Gallery. Although some visitors accused the artist of exploiting the Indians, for a brief time their presence significantly increased the popularity of his show. The Ojibwas were feted by dignitaries and even performed for Queen Victoria. After a disagreement with their somewhat unscrupulous sponsor, Catlin closed the Indian Gallery in 1843 and retired to the cou ntry, where he worked on lithographs and text for his North American Indian Portfolio , which was published early the next year.

    Again he promised his family that they would return home to America if this project did not succeed, but the arrival of a group of Iowa Indians helped revive Catlin's entrepreneurial enthusiasm. He hired them to perform in London in the summer of 1844, then took them on an autumn tour of the northern provinces, Ireland, and Scotland. During the winter of 1844-1845, several of the Iowas became ill and two died while the company was touring. Neverth eless, the troupe agreed to perform in Paris when the artist moved the show there in the spring.

    PARIS, 1845

    True to Catlin's expectations, t he French gave them a warm reception when the exhibit opened in June. King Louis Philippe invited the Indians to perform for the royal family at the Tuileries. In Paris, his art was seen by such notables as George Sand, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, Ale xander von Humboldt, and Prosper Merimee (add / accent marks on first and second e), who tried to convince French government to purchase Catlin's entire collection. Despite his apparent professional success, on a personal level this tour was disastrous. Ca tlin's wife contracted pneumonia and died during their first summer in Paris, leaving him with four young children.

    During the late summer of 1845 Catlin replaced the Iowa troupe, which had returned to America, with a touring group of eleven Ojibwa Indians. In early October they received an invitation to entertain the royal family at Saint-Cloud, and shortly thereafter , the king offered the artist exhibition space at the Louvre. After viewing the collection several more times during the six weeks it was installed in the Salle de Seance, Louis-Philippe commissioned fifteen copies of Catlin's work. When the Louvre show closed, the artist placed his collection in storage and took the Ojibwas on tour to Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent. On the first leg of this trip, eight of the Indians contracted smallpox. Two died in Brussels, and Catlin cancelled the remainder of the trip. He cared for the Indians during their recovery in Brussels, after which the surviving members of the group departed for England. Catlin th en returned to Paris to resume work on the royal commission, but this project was interrupted by the death of his only son, who succumbed to typhoid during the summer of 1846.

    THE LASALLE SERIES, 1846-1848

    After finally delivering the king's replicas and successfully exhibiting two paintings in the Paris Salon of 1846, Catlin began working on a series of paintings documenting the New World adventures of the seventeenth-century French explorer La Salle. The a rtist maintained that Louis Philippe commissioned this cycle, and, indeed, s eeing the Indian Gallery may have triggered the monarch's fond recollection of his own youthful adventures in America during a period of political exile in the late 1790s. It is not infeasible, however, that Catlin may have proposed the idea to the king, r ecognizing a golden opportunity to generate additional royal patronage. In any event, the artist was an ideal choice for the La Salle project, since he knew the rugged American landscape well, having traveled a route nearly identical to the explorer's whil e painting his Plains Indian pictures of the 1830s.

    According to Catlin, the paintings were intended for a historical museum at Versailles in which the intrepid explorer was to be granted a place of honor. The first picture, now unlocated, depicted La Salle, accompanied by Father Hennepin and the Chevalie r de Tonty, receiving a commission to explore the Mississippi from the Governor of Canada. In chronological sequence, the extant cycle then traces the group's 1678 departure from Fort Frontenac, on Lake Ontario, and documents La Salle's predominantly peaceful encounters with various Indian tribes as he and his men descended the Mississippi River toward the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving at their destination on April 9, 1682, he claimed the strategic territory for France, naming the land "Louisiana" in honor of King Louis XIV. After returning upstream to Canada, La Salle then crossed the Atlantic to inform the French king of his discoveries and gain permission to colonize the region. With several hundred men, he embarked on an arduous and ultimately tragic voyage to the Gulf of Mexico. Unable to relocate the mouth of the river, their ships damaged, and the crew racked by disease, they settled at Matagorda Bay, Texas, constructing makeshift shelters with the mater ials gleaned from a wrecked vessel. In January, 1687, La Salle and a small party headed north, desperately attempting to reach Canada on foot. En route, while investigating the murder of his nephew, La Salle was ambushed and assassinated by mutinous crewme n on March 19, 1687. Although he did not live to see the tangible results of his efforts, La Salle's exploration of the Mississippi in the face of extraordinary odds gave France claim to a vast, rich territory in the New World. It was this very land which the nearly-bankrupt French government sold to the United States government for fifteen million dollars in 1803.

    The La Salle series represents a unique aspect of the artist's career, constituting his only sustained attempt at history painting; yet, Catl in's seeming good fortune at securing a lucrative royal commission was short-lived, indeed. He delivered the twenty-seven completed La Salle pictures in February, 1848, only three days prior to the outbreak of revolution. After eighteen years of rule, Lou is Philippe was forced to abdicate and fled to England. When the republican police confronted Catlin, perhaps suspicious of his cordial relationship with the deposed monarch, the artist quickly followed suit. He moved the Indian Gallery and his three daugh ters back to England. After considerable negotiation Catlin was able to recover the La Salle paintings, but he could not convince the new government to honor the ousted king's outstanding debt.

    ENGLAND 1848-1852

    The unfortunate outcome of the La Salle commission is symptomatic of the financial difficulties Catlin endured during most of his career. Despite his paintings' widespread popularity and his remarkable personal reputation as an author, lecturer, showman, and champion of the American Indian, Catlin seems to have ha d great difficulty managing his financial affairs. In 1852 the impoverished artist found himself facing bankruptcy. His children were entrusted to the care of relatives in the United States and Catlin was forced to close the Indian Gallery. When creditors threatened to disperse the collection through foreclosure, a Philadelphia industrialist, Joseph Harrison, offered to pay Catlin's debts and hold the objects as collateral. The artist never regained possession of these works, which were stored in a boiler factory until seven years after Catlin's death, when Harrison's widow donated the surviving pieces to the Smithsonian Institution.


    Information concerning Catlin's life during the years immediately following his bankruptcy is scarce, in part because the artist, in an effort to avoid creditors, remained intentionally vague about his whereabouts. Despite his severe financial reversals, a brief period of imprisonment, and several years of acute personal hardship, in his late-fifties the indomitable painter managed to launch yet another new chapter in his extraordinary career.

    Like many artists of his era, Catlin was inspired by the South American explorations of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whom he had met some years earlier in Paris. He was intrigued by the prospect of documenting new tribes and unexplored te rritory, and was sorely tempted by seemingly-legitimate tales of a hidden cache of gold that the Indians were said to have confiscated f rom Spanish miners in the Crystal Mountains of Brazil. Catlin fantasized that the discovery of this lost treasure would alleviate his financial distress.

    In 1854 he sailed to South America and for the next six years, accompanied by various companions, guides, and interpreters, he traveled extensively throughout the continent. From 1854 to 1860, Catlin's explorations took him from Venezuela to Tierra del Fu ego, and then northward along the Pacific coastline of the Americas to Alaska. Although his itinerar y has not yet been fully documented, it is known that he visited Argentina, British Guyana. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dutch Guyana (Surinam), French Guyana, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the Yucatan Peninsula. During this six year period, he also returned to Europe on several occasions -- sometimes traveling under an assumed name, since the statute of limitations on his debt had not yet expired. Although documentation for this period is exceedingly scarce, it is believed Catlin visited Engl and, France, and Prussia, where he shared his scientific findings with Baron von Humboldt in 1855.


    During this later phase of his career, Catlin painted hundreds of Indian portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes of tribal life, and wrote several books describing his adventures. Unlike his earlier North American paintings, which are distinguished by the artist's warm rapport with his subjects, his South American works customarily were recorded from a more discreet distance. On occasion, Catlin even disguised his presence from the Indians, who understandably were suspicious of a stranger in their midst. His self-imposed role of detached observer may have been due, in large part, to the fact that the artist had great difficulty communicating with the native population. He was suffering from an acute hearing disorder, and in the remote regions he visited, he often had difficulty locating a suitable interpreter.

    In a technical sense, as well, Catlin's later work differs markedly from his earlier efforts. T he artist's established method of painting on a canvas support, which could easily be rolled and transported, proved inappropriate for the South American project. Because oil pigments dry very slowly in humid conditions, he was forced to modify his approa ch to suit the tropical environment. While in South America, Catlin began painting on Bristol board, a cardboard-like material that was less susceptible to mold than canvas and which could better withstand the rigors of arduous travel through inhospitable terrain. He also adopted a thinner, even more sketchy painting style to ensure rapid drying and to conserve materials during his rigorous journeys, since supplies could not easily be replenished. Catlin usually referred to these later oil paintings as the "Cartoon Collection" to distinguish them from his North American canvases of the 1830s.


    The artist returned to Europe in 1860 and settled in Brussels, Belgium, where he painted a large number of North American Plains Indian ima ges similar in subject to those he had lost to creditors years earlier. Unlike his depictions of the West Coast and Southwestern tribes, produced on location during his 1855 Pacific trek from South America to Alaska, these works were modeled after survivin g sketches, notebook entries, and on memories of his travels some twenty-five years earlier. In these late paintings, Catlin employed the same sketchy technique he had developed in South America rather than emulating his early, more finished work of the 18 30s. This stylistic decision may have been motivated by financial circumstances, since thinly-painted pictures on Bristol board were less expensive to produce. It also is conceivable that Catlin chose this technique in order to create a stylistically cohe rent body of work that could be exhibited as a complete set, along with the recently executed South American paintings.

    Catlin continued to write during this period, publishing a book for youth, Life Amongst the Indians (1857, 1861); The Breath of Life (1861); Last Rambles Amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes (1867); his eye-witness account of the Mandan ceremony, O-Kee-Pa: a Religious Ceremony; and Other Customs of the Mandans (1967); and a geological study, The Lifted and Subsided Rocks of America (1870). He also planned to produce a folio-sized catalogue of the Cartoon Collection and dreamed of touring Europe and Asia before returning in triumph to the United States. The artist was so confident of his impending s uccess that he offered to sell his original Indian Gallery paintings and Cartoon Collection to the New-York Historical Society for $120,000. This proposal was particularly unrealistic, considering the fact that most of the early works were no longer in his possession. Catlin may have assumed he could repay his creditor with some of the proceeds from this sale, but he failed to realize that after eighteen years of neglect, many of the artifacts and art works stored by Harrison had deteriorated badly and some were virtually worthless.


    Although he received a certain degree of literary and artistic acclaim in Europe, Catlin's accomplishments remained largely unrecognized in America. He exhibited his new pictures in Brussels in 1870, and the following year he returned home after an absenc e of nearly thirty-two years. In the fall of 1871, Catlin showed the Cartoon Collection in New York but it received little notice in the press. Increasingly anxious to secure a p ermanent home for his life's work, the seventy-five year old artist undertook yet another futile effort to sell his collection to the federal government. In February of 1872 he accepted a standing invitation from Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian, to exhibit his paintings in Washington, where Catlin believed he might rekindle Congressional support. Although he was not permitted to charge admission, Catlin anticipated a favorable response to his new work and hoped catalogue sales would be brisk. He submitted a petition to Congress, offering his collection for $65,000 --the same price set during negotiations some twenty-five years earlier. Following a series of frustrating bureaucratic delays, Congress adjourned without considering Catlin's proposal.


    The artist became ill in the fall of 1872, and Secretary Henry graciously offered the artist living quarters in a small tower room at the Smithsonian. When told his doctors held little hope of his recovery, Catlin agreed to move to New Jersey, where he might be cared for by his daughters during his final days. He left the Cartoon Collection behind in Washington, still hoping the government purchase would be imminent. Reportedly still agonizing over the ultimate disposition of his collection at the time o f his death, Catlin succumbed to his illness on December 23, 1872. Obituary writers praised his tireless efforts and denounced the United States Congress, "which should have fostered and aided him."


    A posthumous groundswell of appreciation helped revive the campaign to secure Catlin's collection for the public trust. His daughters petitioned the Congress repeatedly, and Joseph Henry's subsequent endorsement helped secure widespread academic support for the proposal. Henry had also contacted Joseph Harris on, who retained possession of the original Indian Gallery, in the hopes that the two collections might be combined for a joint congressional purchase. Harrison stubbornly refused, still demanding full payment of the debt he had carried more than twenty ye ars. In February of 1875, the matter of purchasing the Catlin collection for the Smithsonian finally was put before a committee of Congress, but it was rejected and Catlin's daughters abandoned their efforts to secure governmental patronage. In 1879, five years after Joseph Harrison's death, his widow, Sarah, donated the surviving pieces of the original Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian Institution. Unfortunately, Secretary Henry had died the previous year, so neither he nor Catlin lived to see the positive resolution of their lengthy crusade.

    The Cartoon Collection has an equally complex provenance. After being stored at the Smithsonian for four years, more than one-hundred-twenty-five pictures were displayed in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exhibit. Catlin's heirs returned the paintings to the institution for safekeeping in 1885, hoping to revive interest in the sale of their father's late works. When no financial agreement could be reached, they reclaimed the paintings again in 1892. More than a de cade later, the artist's two surviving children initiated yet another unsuccessful attempt to sell the Cartoon Collection to the Smithsonian, which had little interest in acquiring hundreds of additional works by Catlin.
    In 1912 his heirs sold the paintings to the American Museum of Natural History in New York [for $10,000]; that institution consigned most of the works to a commercial gallery in the 1950s, which in turn, sold them to Paul Mellon. In 1965 Mr. Mellon donated three-hundred-fifty-one of the Catlin paintings to the National Gallery of Art.


    George Catlin passionately promoted his art throughout his career, not only to increase the market for his work, but to broaden public awareness of the Indians' plight. In addition to being a prolific and highly motivated painter, he wrote and illustrated a number of successful books, made numerous replicas of his paintings, and had them reproduced in graphic form to insure wide public distribution. His exceedingly detailed renderings have served as an invaluable resource for Indian studies and his art has had a profound effect on our understanding of native American culture. Today, over a century after Catlin's death, there are more than eight hundred of the artist's works in the combined collections of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art, the Library of Congress, and the National Gallery of Art. In effect, Catlin's lifelong dream of having his collection housed in a national museum has been realized and his herculean effort to preserve for posterity the image and culture of nineteenth-century American Indians has been universally acclaimed as a major ethnographic, literary, and artistic achievement.

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    Text written by Donna Mann, Education Division.
    © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992.

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