The Eyes

The Eyes

Monday, July 8, 2013

George Catlin and Native American History

Artist George Catlin (1796-1872) journeyed west five times in the 1830s to paint the Plains Indians and their way of life. Convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for native peoples, he viewed his Indian Gallery as a way to rescue their culture from possible oblivion.

Catlin delivered lectures, conducted tours, and hosted receptions for the press. Beginning in 1840, he staged the first Wild West shows. Early casts of characters featured Englishmen and boys dressed in costumes from the artist's own collection, who sang, danced, and whooped their way through mock battles. 

In the spring of 1845, Catlin took a group from the Iowa nation and his Indian Gallery to Paris where their performances drew the interest of such cultural figures as Victor Hugo and Eugène Delacroix. When the Iowa returned to the United States, they were replaced in turn by a second group of Ojibwe, who so entertained King Louis Philippe that he asked them to perform for the royal family and invited Catlin to exhibit his collection at the Louvre.

On the heels of the installation of the Indian Gallery in the Louvre, Catlin was invited to exhibit in the Paris Salon, France's premier art show. Catlin was praised by Charles Baudelaire, the most important French critic of the age, for capturing "the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way."

Catlin lobbied the U.S. government for patronage throughout his career, hoping Congress would purchase the Indian Gallery as a legacy for future generations, but by 1852 he was bankrupt. A Philadelphia industrialist paid his debts and acquired the Indian Gallery, and soon after Catlin's death, the paintings were donated to the Smithsonian. Today, Catlin's Indian Gallery is part of the American Art Museum's permanent collection, recognized as a great cultural treasure, offering rare insight into native cultures, and a crucial chapter in American history.

Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe | 1832
Oil on Canvas | 29 in. x 24 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Comanche Meeting the Dragoons | 1834–35
Oil on Canvas | 24 in. x 29 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum

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