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George Catlin

 (1796 - 1872)
George Catlin was active/lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey.  George Catlin is known for Indian genre-figure and portrait painting.

George Catlin

    KAT-lin  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for George Catlin
Born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, George Catlin became the first American artist of stature to visit and depict the Plains Indians on his own volition, and he spent about eight years traveling among the 48 North American Indian tribes including to Alaska.  His sketches and paintings are the first and most important record of land west of the Mississippi River before white settlement.  Historian Robert Taft wrote that ..."it can be said that Catlin was the great publicist" of the upper Missouri region as a result of his trip in 1832. . . "I find Catlin's name the most frequently mentioned in biographical accounts of later artists of the West or for that matter one of the most frequently referred to authorities on the early history of the upper Missouri country." (38)

Catlin also recorded Indians in South America, where he toured from 1852 to 1857, having lost his collection of North American paintings to creditors.  To help him financially and to get something in return, Samuel Colt, the gun maker and industrialist, provided Catlin with funding to go to South America and then to Alaska with the agreement that Catlin would do 'firearm paintings'.   These were "pictures of himself in dramatic situations with a Colt weapon in his hand.  The number of paintings Catlin made is unknown---estimates vary from 9 to 12---but Colt himself had a suite of 6 lithographs made, which he distributed for advertising purposes.  All are fanciful and probably correspond to no event in Catlin's travels, but they are charged with myth.  None is more wonderful than Ostrich Chase, Buenos Aires, 1857, which shows Catlin blasting away at the birds with his Colt rifle, with the rolling immensity of the Argentine pampa in the background.  Here, history, industry and weapon become art." (Mac Adam)

Catlin's childhood was in New York and Pennsylvania, and he heard much about Indians as a youngster because his mother at the age of eight had been captured by them.  The family also had numerous visitors who had traveled the frontier and whose stories intrigued him.  He was educated at home and became a collector of Indian relics.

In 1817, he began the study of law at Litchfield, Connecticut, and taught himself to paint portraits, mainly prominent politicians.  Until 1823, he practiced as a lawyer in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.  But finding art more interesting, he moved to Philadelphia where he was encouraged by his artist friends Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully and John Neagle.

He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art* and then went to New York to the National Academy of Design*, where in 1824, he was also elected a Member.  In Philadelphia in 1824, he had seen a delegation of Plains Indians, described as "lords of the forest," which aroused his determination to become a pictorial historian of Indians.  In the six years before he headed West, he painted portraits of Indians on reservations in western New York.

By 1830, he was in St. Louis, which was the western gateway to the West, and he was aided by General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs and former leader with Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  He traveled with Clark for two years when Clark negotiated Indian treaties, and painted Iowa, Missouri, Otoe, Omaha, Sauk and Fox and eastern Sioux Indians.

Catlin traveled the plains region during the summers until 1836, and returned East in the winters to get more money for his ventures.  In 1832, he was aboard the American Fur Company's new steamer Yellowstone, the first steamboat that traveled to Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River.

This voyage gave Catlin a chance to paint Indians 2000 miles up the Missouri.  He worked with thin paint and had great skill at drawing with a brush, which allowed him to complete about six sketches a day.  At Fort Union, the final destination, Catlin was given an upper room to use as a studio.  There he did the earliest portraits of the Blackfoot and Crow Indians, but he is better known for his portraits of the Mandans whose manners he much admired.  These works had particular value when that tribe was nearly exterminated in 1837 by a small pox epidemic.  From his upper Missouri travels of 80 days, he completed nearly 200 paintings.

In Europe, he had an extensive tour and exhibition of his work, called "Catlin's Indian Gallery," more than 600 paintings of portraits and sketches of Indian life. This "Gallery" was well received, but in America, interest in his work lagged until after his death. The collection was offered unsuccessfully to Congress to purchase, and eventually was donated to the National Museum.

George Catlin died in 1872 in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Biographical Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Robert Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Alfred Mac Adam, "Arms and the Man", Book Review, Art & Auction, June 2006, p. 122

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, I
Biography photo for George Catlin
When Catlin was 8 years old, his mother had been captured by Indians.  Therefore, his early life was influenced by family legends and frontier guests.  He was educated at home, was outdoors oriented, and collected Indian relics.  In 1817, he began studying law in Litchfield, Connecticut and at the same time teaching himself to paint portraits. He practiced law in Luzerne, Pennsylvania until 1823 when he moved to Philadelphia to devote himself to portrait painting, as a friend of Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Sully, and John Neagle.  His portraits up to 1829 included New York and Washington politicians. His Constitutional Convention painting in 1829 contained 115 figures.

In 1824, Catlin had seen a "delegation of dignified Indians from the wilds of the West, tinted and tasseled off exactly for the painter's palette."  This and his background resolved him "to use my art and so much of the labor of my future life as might be required in rescuing from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America."  He began in 1830 in St. Louis as the first artist of real stature to paint the tribes on the lower Missouri.  In 1831 he traveled up the Platte River, and in 1832 headed up the Missouri to Fort Union.  From 1834 to 1836 he painted among the Indians in the summers and in the winters he would return East to earn funds for the coming summer.  From 1829 to 1838 he painted his collection of about 600 Indian portraits and sketches of the Indian civilization including exactly how they lived.  The collection was offered for sale to the Congress but was not accepted.  It was exhibited in the US and in Europe between 1837 and 1852, was taken as security for a loan, and eventually donated to the National Museum in Washington DC.

After 1852, Catlin made his "cartoon collection" of 603 paintings copying his earlier paintings, working from sketches and from memory, and adding new paintings of South American Indians.  In 1861, Catlin wrote The Breath of Life in which he advocated keeping one's mouth closed, particularly during sleep.  Catlin was lean and agile, about 5'8", with blue eyes and black hair.  He walked with the straight, measured pace of an Indian.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West

Biography from William R Talbot Fine Art
Biography photo for George Catlin
During the 1830s, Catlin lived for years among the various North American Indian tribes, studying their ways.  His published works provide us with the most authentic anthropological record of these already vanishing people.

"A young lawyer turned portraitist, George Catlin traveled west from his home in Pennsylvania in 1830 to fulfill his dream of recording on canvas the North American Indians and their way of life. It was his desire, he said, to paint 'faithful portraits of their principal personages, both men and women, from each tribe, views of their villages games, etc., and [to keep] full notes on their character and history. I designed, also, to procure their costumes, and a complete collection of their manufactures and weapons, and to perpetuate them in a Gallery Unique, for the instruction of the ages.'" (Wagner)

Catlin's Gallery included more than four hundred painted portraits and scenes of tribal life, from which the illustrations for his books were drawn.

Shortly after taking his "Gallery" to England for an extended period, Catlin self-published the first of the many editions of the North American Indian Portfolio. The prints were completed by the British lithographic firm Day & Haghe. Two first editions were issued: the "regular . . . in printed tints" for five guineas and the de luxe for eight guineas, printed in tints and hand colored.

The record Catlin created is unique, both in the breadth of information and in the depth of the sympathetic understanding that his images demonstrate. Catlin described the American Indian as "an honest, hospitable, faithful, brave, warlike, cruel, revengeful, relentless,—yet honourable, contemplative, and religious being." He saw no future for either the Indian way of life or his very existence, and with these thoughts always at the back of his mind, he worked against time, setting himself a truly punishing schedule, to record what he saw. Catlin's study remains one of the most widely circulated works on American Indians written in the nineteenth century, and the illustrations are valued for their highly important visual documentation of indigenous Indian life in the American West.

Refs.: Howes C-243; McCracken, no. 10; Sabin no. 11532, Wagner-Camp, no. 105a-1.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
The first major artist to offer a pictorial record of the Plains Indians in their own territories, George Catlin grew up in the Susquehanna Valley of New York and Pennsylvania.  Following his first career as a lawyer, Catlin pursued a second as a self-taught portrait painter and miniaturist.  He found his muse while on a trip to Philadelphia in 1828.  Upon seeing a visiting delegation of Western Indians, Catlin thereafter turned his attention to Native American subjects.

He began his mission in 1830; by the decade's end, he had traveled thousands of miles and visited forty-eight tribes.  From this odyssey, he assembled "Catlin's Indian Gallery," a collection of more than six hundred drawings and paintings, as well as thousands of costumes and artifacts.  The collection toured American and European cities for twelve years and, in replica form, for another twenty.  The original collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution seven years after Catlin's death in 1872.

In the late 1840s, Catlin began to produce sets of bound volumes of line drawings taken from earlier Indian subjects. These souvenir albums, which numbered about ten, were offered for sale to private collectors. Most are presently held in permanent library or museum collections. This drawing was part of one such album, which has been disassembled and offered for sale.

Each album was unique and included between 117 and 217 portraits.  All are exquisitely drawn and reflect the artist's sympathetic regard for his subject. Each of the individuals portrayed is identified by tribe, native name, and transliterated name; a narrative description often accompanies the sketch.  The subjects are presented as though they have just stepped up to the picture plane, pausing momentarily before the viewer. Some are shown in profile or three-quarter view, but many directly meet our gaze. All are dressed in native attire and carry objects that indicate their interests and taste.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from the Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

Biography from Kiechel Fine Art
Biography photo for George Catlin
In 1830, armed with nothing but a fist full of paintbrushes, George Catlin set out from Philadelphia to do what likely no man had done before - depict the Indians of the "wilds of the Far West." Motivated by the fear of the briskly expanding civilization, Catlin vowed to lend a hand to "a dying nation, who have no historians and biographers of their own thus snatching from approaching oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity."

Catlin spent eight years visiting over 45 different tribes, where he participated in buffalo hunts and observed Indian ceremonies, games, dances and rituals.  He emerged with 520 oil portraits and paintings.  Catlin's work has been particularly noted for the "roughness and energy" of its subject matter, which left an impression not only on America, but also on Europe.  A reporter for The Times of England wrote: "The puny process of the fox chase sinks into insignificance when compared with . . . the grappling of a bear or the butting of a bison."

Perhaps most important, Catlin introduced the work to previously undepicted tribes, such as the Blackfoot, Crow, Plains Cree and Yanktonai Sioux Indians.  Though many of his depicted tribes are now extinct and all of the noble chiefs and brave warriors whose portraits he painted have long since died, Catlin ensured that their memory would live on through his art.  In his own words, "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy of a lifetime of one man."

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George Catlin 1849 by William Fisk

About  George Catlin

Born:  1796 - Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania
Died:   1872 - Jersey City, New Jersey
Known for:  Indian genre-figure and portrait painting

Essays referring to
George Catlin

Painted in Latin America
Paris pre-1900
Western Artists