CATLIN, GEORGE (1796-1872)
Born at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1796, and initially trained as a lawyer, George Catlin moved to Philadelphia in 1821 to pursue a career in art, reportedly receiving instruction in painting from Charles Wilson Peale and possibly Thomas Sully. Specializing in portraiture, Catlin was attracted to the American Indian as a subject after observing a delegation of chiefs at Peale's museum in Philadelphia. He produced his first Indian portrait when he painted the likeness of Seneca orator Red Jacket at Buffalo, New York, in 1826.
In 1830 Catlin set out to explore the continental interior. In 1832 he ascended the Missouri River by steamboat as far as Fort Union, in present North Dakota. Two years later he visited Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, at that time the administrative center of a large area that had been set aside for the relocation of displaced tribes from the United States. Indigenous groups such as the Osage, Kiowa, and Comanche opposed the government's resettlement policy, and Col. Henry Dodge was sent out to establish peace between contending parties. In the summer of 1834 the Dodge-Leavenworth Expedition traveled from Fort Gibson to the Wichita Mountains, in present southwestern Oklahoma, to treat with tribes in that area. Catlin accompanied the dragoons. His views of the region and its people, later widely exhibited and published, were the first to be obtained by any artist.
From 1836 to 1839 Catlin exhibited his Western paintings throughout the eastern United States. In the latter year he took his collection abroad and in 1840 opened a much publicized exhibition in London. Anticipating the Wild West shows of a later date, Catlin's exhibit featured lectures and demonstrations of American Indian hunting, war, and weaponry, displays of artifacts collected during his travels in the West, and live performances by "Native Dancers from the Wilds of America." Meanwhile he issued Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians (2 vols., 1841) and North American Indian Portfolio (1844). In 1845 he took his show to Paris, but the revolution of 1848 forced him to return to London, where he opened yet another exhibit and published Eight Years' Travel and Residence in Europe (2 vols., 1848). While touring abroad, Catlin's wife and son both died, leaving him three daughters, whom he entrusted to the care of a brother-in-law in New York.
Chronically in debt, Catlin eventually lost his collection to creditors. In Paris and Brussels he undertook to recreate his celebrated North American Indian gallery from memory. Between 1853 and 1860 he made several trips to South America. He may also have visited the American West again in 1854. In 1870 he returned for the last time to the United States and exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Falling ill, he was remanded to the care of his family in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he died on December 23, 1872.
Today the Smithsonian Institution owns the largest inventory of Catlin's work. Other collections of importance are held by the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Brian W. Dippie, Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990). William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin's Indian Gallery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979).
David C. Hunt
© Oklahoma Historical Society