George Catlin and his Indian Gallery

by Donald Goddard


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Stands Both Sides
Ah-no-je-nahge, He Who Stands on Both Sides,
a Distinguished Ball Player, 1835.

Eastern Sioux/Dakota.
Oil, 29" x 24".
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.m 1985,66,74.

George Catlin was born in 1796, the same year as the Hudson River painter Asher Durand, 20 years after the beginning of the American War of Independence, and five years before the birth of Thomas Cole, who was already painting landscapes in the Catskills when Catlin moved to New York City in 1827 to establish himself as a portrait painter. Catlin grew up, like Cole, in Pennsylvania, studied law and practiced it briefly in Connecticut, studied art and became a painter of portrait miniatures in Philadelphia, was elected a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1824 and the National Academy of Art in 1826, then moved to New York City. Had he remained there as a portrait painter, or anywhere as an awkward figure in the center of power, little would be known of him now. But he didn't.

He moved to the outer edges, just as Cole moved to the "wildernesses" of New York and New England. His inspiration was a delegation of Winnebago Indians encountered on a trip in 1828 to Philadelphia, where he painted portraits of several of them. In 1830, he moved to St. Louis, and there began his immersion in a subject that would hold him the rest of his life. Again like Cole, he wasn't simply adopting subjects from the grand categories of art, though he certainly knew them as they were defined in the academy, but rather he was charging into the world as it existed beyond any such categories. The Choctaw's ball-playing games appeared to him as "a school for the painter or sculptor, equal to any of those which ever inspired the hand of the artist in the Olympian games or the Roman Forum."
Niagara Falls 1827
Bird's eye View of Niagara Falls, 1827.
11 14" x 12 1/2".
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.m 1875,66,398.

From 1830 through 1836, Catlin made trips throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River basins, where he painted the land, people, communities, and events of the Plains, Chippewa, Cheyenne, Ponca, Blackfoot, Mandan, Sac and Fox, Crow, Iowa, Nez Perce, Kansas, Missouria, Pawnee, Omaha, Otoe, Dakota Sioux, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota Sioux, Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Choctaw, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Assiniboine, among others. This period marked the beginning of the final effort by the U.S. government and settlers to push the Indians out of their country, prompted especially by the Indian Removal Act signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. By the end of his early travels Catlin had completed about 600 paintings -- portraits and scenes of Indian life -- and from 1837 through 1839 he showed them in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., along with artifacts and accompanied by his own lectures.

In 1839 he left for England with his work and mounted the show in London, other cities in England and Ireland, Paris, and Brussels during the 1840s, at times with the participation of visiting Ojibwe and Iowa Indians, and to the acclaim of a number of interesting people, including Queen Victoria and Charles Baudelaire. It was Catlin's way of making a living, but ultimately the enterprise collapsed financially. His wife Clara died in 1845, his son George a year later. Catlin was jailed for his debts in 1851, his two daughters were taken from him, and he was driven into bankruptcy in 1852, when the entire Indian Gallery ended up in the Philadelphia boilerworks owned by Joseph Harrison, Jr., a builder of railroads (particularly in Russia) who acquired the gallery by paying off Catlin's creditors. (Considering other points of contact, which I will mention later, it would be interesting to know if Harrison employed James McNeill Whistler's father, a civil engineer on the Russian railroads during the 1840s.)


Above St. Louis
River Bluffs, 1320 Miles Above St. Louis, 1832.
Oil, 11 1/4" x 14 1/2"
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.m 1985,66,399.

Starting in 1838, Catlin had offered his entire gallery for sale to the United States government, with particular urgency around the time of his bankruptcy and always without success, even until his death. John Mix Stanley, a widely traveled painter from Canandaigua, New York, had the same experience with his Indian Gallery beginning ten years after Catlin. There was a good deal of support for both artists, but also infighting over seemingly bogus issues of authenticity, to an extent that indicates an unwillingness to admit what had actually happened to the original inhabitants of the continent. Catlin's gallery, some of it badly damaged, finally entered the Smithsonian in 1879 as a gift from Sarah Poulterer Harrison, the widow of Joseph Harrison, Jr.

Recently, I heard the historian Simon Schama express his annoyance that paintings are often taken as literal depictions of historical events, and he cited Goya as an artist whose reactions to events in his Disasters of War series of etchings was very much his own, and not illustration. What this misses is the very important change Goya's works represents -- that he was there, that he witnessed these atrocities, that it was part of his experience. For one scene of a soldier dragging a father away from his child, the caption is "I saw it." It was the beginning of reportage, not long before the advent of the camera. Likewise for Catlin. He was there, and it was crucial to his artistic vision. He could have gone from the very circumscribed world of law to the somewhat more expansive practice of miniature painting, to full-fledged portrait painting. But there wasn't enough there there, and he ended up in St. Louis. But it is clear even in certain paintings of the 1820s that there was already something remarkable going on.

These works are not portraits but landscapes, views of West Point (where, incidentally, Whistler attended the military academy in the 1850s), and more particularly of Niagara Falls. One of the latter is an extreme panorama in which the falls curve and seem to invade the space of the viewer at the far right end. The other is an aerial view of the falls and the land around it from what could be five or ten thousand feet in the air, as perhaps seen by a bird. The detailing, of the falls, themselves, of the houses, plots of land, and trees, is extraordinary, like an exquisite, preternaturally precise scientific diagram, so that an epic balance or tension is achieved between close up and far away. Catlin is able to see great detail within a very large world, and it is this that he carried with him to the west.


Tribe 1832
Stu-mick-o-sucks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832.
Oil, 29" x 24".
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.149.

He began with the specifics of individuals, of Indians visiting or living in St. Louis from 1830 to 1832. But it was the landscape that lured him and drove him to a new kind of vision. When he set out on his journey up the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, he was entering a world that was endlessly faceted, but which he nonetheless knew was coming to an end. "Few people even know the true definition of the term 'West'," he wrote in 1833, "and where is its location? -- phantom-like it flies before us as we travel, and our way is continually gilded, before us, as we approach the setting sun." What he saw before him, in the boundless prairies and the rounded green vast country of green fields, where all the men are red." He painted these spaces as almost transparent veils of color on which the figures of Indians appear at times as phantoms, in the spirit of Turner perhaps, but more pointedly anticipating the "nocturnes" and "harmonies" that Whistler (again) painted from about 1865 through the '80s. In other words, it was a newly abstract and fitting way of painting -- fitting to the subject and to Catlin's particular genius as an artist. The most extreme and minimal example, a small oval painting of the 1850s ironically, or colloquially, called Out of Sight of Land, has an absolutely straight horizon line across its center with a cloud formation in the upper half casting shadows on the almost featureless grassland of the lower half.

From the perspective of the larger landscape, Catlin focused inward to the phantom figures, to scenes of hunting, sports, ceremony, and village life, and finally to particular people he came to know and admire -- warriors, chiefs, braves, medicine men, athletes, women, children. Best known among his hundreds of portraits, perhaps (it appeared in the Paris Salon of 1846) is Stu-mick-o-sucks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, the likeness of a prominent Blackfoot chief painted in 1832 at he very end of Catlin's first trip to the northern plains, which was farther away from and therefore, he felt, less corrupted by the advance of U.S. settlers. As in all portraits, it is this, the person, that he has been preceded by and is the sum total of the search.

There is simply the sky, in all its plangent variabilities, and the human presence -- the powerful outlines of his face and hair, the strong, deep colors, the interaction of curvilinear and geometric shapes, the incredible detailing of textures and reflections. Even more than in most of Catlin's portraits, the flesh and soul of the figure exist somewhere between the vague turmoil of the sky and the very specific patterns, colors, and surfaces of his quilled and feathered ornaments, which assume a kind of hyperreality in their subtle turning toward and away from the light.


Pipe Dance
Pipe Dance, Assiniboine, 1835-37.
Oil, 19 5/8" x 27 5/8".Oil, 29" x 24".
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.m 1875,66,453.

In the manner of the 18th- and 19th- century gallery presentations, Catlin showed his portraits row upon row, completely covering gallery walls. And so this exhibition has done as well, in a large space on the second floor of the Renwick Gallery, only somewhat ruining the cumulative power of the portraits by ranging them around enormous western landscapes by Thomas Moran and other later artists, presumably to give an idea of the land lost by the Indians, but, of course , only after it had been lost. Still, the effect is more that that of images or phantoms; it is of nations and people that are still alive.

Donald Goddard © 2003


The exhibition was on view at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC 20006.
It continued at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO and at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Los Angeles, CA, and at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
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