Portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin

In this week’s blog post I am going to look at the work of George Catlin, a nineteenth century artist and writer who painted and interacted with Native Americans along the advancing American frontier. I want to establish how easy or difficult the task was, how events and opinions forming in the background affected the response and overall meaning of the Native American portraits and what legacy he left to contemporary Native Americans and historians. Firstly though I will provide some context as to who George Catlin was and investigate his aims and personal feelings in his travels.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American-born artist from Pennsylvania. He had originally begun training to become a lawyer in 1817 but soon became interested in being an artist through meeting Thomas Sully, a prominent American portraitist during this period. During the 1830s, Catlin undertook five trips beyond the western frontier in land that was influenced by American/European culture but had yet to become American territory. The aim of George Catlin’s work, and the later touring exhibitions, was to record the daily lives, rituals, and social dynamics of the various Native American groups across central and western North America. Catlin wanted to do this by painting the portraits of Native American individuals and groups, by collecting different artefacts and by publishing his writing on his interaction with those individuals he observed. Catlin assembled his collection for his “Indian Gallery” exhibition that toured in the eastern states from 1833 to 1839. The exhibition contained over 500 portraits of cultural activity and items used in daily life and ritual.

Painting and collecting was no easy task and from the beginning there were issues that had to be taken into account. Firstly, whilst the Native Americans that Catlin met were not in American territory, they would have more than likely had met Christian missionaries and traders as well as land speculators. As Stephanie Pratt and Joan Carpenter Troccoli suggest; ‘It is important that we remember the context, for Catlin’s desire to record Native American culture before it was contaminated or destroyed was inevitably too ambitious.’ [1] By collecting and presenting these portraits and artefacts, Catlin would have also had made a name for himself. However, his fame and career did not always pick up, as what began as a success slowly turned in debt and bankruptcy. Catlin’s time touring in Europe from 1840 to 1855 and then 1860 to 1871 did bring a measure of success and his work was shown to various important figures of the time such as Queen Victoria in 1843 and King Louis-Philippe in 1845. It is also worth noting that during his European tours, a group of Ojibwa Indians also joined Catlin’ tour and performed for audiences across England, France and Belgium. It would seem therefore that it was very difficult venture to pursue though Catlin appears to have made a good attempt at it.

This is not to say that the Native American people who Catlin painted and observed did not want to be recorded, it is just that many historians and Native Americans do not like the way and the reasons that it occurred. One of the main reasons for Catlin going on the trips was to record what he thought was the vanishing culture of North America. The cliché of the ‘Dying Indian’ was prominent during this period and Catlin appears to have been part of this opinion but rather than accept it, he in some sense wanted to save what he saw as a vanishing peoples. Literary works such as James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) is a good example of the idea of disappearing Indians from North America as seen in popular literature. Catlin’s work also had a place in the wider colonial narrative of the Euro-American world. As American colonists and Native Americans increasingly came into conflict with one another across the Great Plains, it could be said that many Americans only saw the warlike side of the Native Americans and nothing else.

So what was George Catlin’s legacy? After investigating his life and art work there seems to be various conclusions that we can make. On the one hand, the portraits and images created by Catlin produced many of the images and stereotypes that persist today about the vanishing native peoples of North America. By portraying the Native Americans as a lost culture, Catlin and many others were pushing the Indians from historical knowledge which put them in the past as opposed to the United States push west and into the future. On the other hand, Catlin’s desire to record what he saw before it vanished was a worthy goal, even if it was to a degree career and fame orientated. Catlin also looked past the popular stereotypes and saw a culture being destroyed by American contact, which he felt needed recording before it disappeared. Indeed, many of the portraits and paintings have also been useful to contemporary Native American tribes who use his work to further their understanding of their ancestors if it is needed. Therefore, whilst the portraits and writings of George Catlin have contributed to the image of a vanishing people, they also helped produce a visual history of the Native Americans that might not had existed without Catlin.

[1] S, Pratt and J, Troccoli., George Catlin, American Indian Portraits (London, 2013), 25.

Link below to the Smithsonian American Art Museum which holds the collection:

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