"He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness." - George Catlin
23 December 1872, the American painter and author George Catlin died in Jersey City at the age of 76.
"He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness." (Charles Baudelaire)
|Catlin’s portrait of the Kainai (“Blood Tribe”,|
one of the three nations comprising the Blackfoot Confederacy) chief Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, 1832
Visual arts in the United States, like literature and music, took quite a while to emancipate itself from European paragons or even simple imitations. During the second half of the 18th century, mostly portraits of important personages of the Revolution or worthies of the neighbourhood were produced and landscape painting usually amplified a view on a man’s property. By the 1820s though, during the beginning westward expansion of the young nation, artists discovered that they actually had a whole new range of sujets and motifs in their own backyard, never tackled by other painters before. And, with the same spirit that moved contemporary French artists, members of the emerging Hudson River school went out to have an airing, painted en plein-air and celebrated the wonders of nature in the Hudson River valley or the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains and were at one with the magnificent nature around them, like Thoreau and Emerson. Some, however, took their easels and paints and really trecked west and painted what they saw there, like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and George Catlin.
|George Catlin: "Grazing Buffalo Bull" (1845)|
Raised on the stories of his mother who was abducted by Seneca braves during the Wyoming Massacre in 1778, George Catlin met the first member of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, an Oneida, when he was 9 years old, playing in the woods along the Susquehanna. When the man lifted his hand in friendship, the terrified boy was so moved by his kindness that he never forgot it. Joining General Clark on a diplomatic mission west of St Louis in 1830 after a brief career as a lawyer, Catlin followed his calling, visited 50 of the First Nations of the Great Plains over the next five years, producing over 500 paintings of the people, their lives and times. After his return to the east, Catlin spent the rest of his live marketing his own work, writing books and going to Europe where his “Indian Gallery” became a smashing success, even though his arrangements were quite reminiscent of a travelling circus. And that left him deep in debt after all was said and done. Returning to the United States, he finally found acclaim when Joseph Henry, then first secretary of the Smithsonian, was in desperate need of paintings to exhibit after the devastating fire of 1865, where the “Indian Gallery” remains to this day.
|George Catlin's rendition of the Mandan"O-kee-pa Ceremony" (1832)|
The men and women whose likenesses Catlin painted reacted quite differently on his work. Blackfoot medicine men cherished to be painted, some Lakota predicted the almost stereotypical consequences for those whose souls were captured on the canvasses or did not follow his perception and criticised Catlin that he painted only half the face, leading to an intertribal conflict, since the model felt quite insulted as well after the critics concluded that he, the Hunkpapa brave Little Bear, must be consequently only half a man. The Mandan though were so delighted by his works that they called him the Medicine White Man and allowed him to live with their people for several months. Catlin’s paintings are, along with those of Karl Bodmer, the last documents of a tribe that was nearly extinguished by a smallpox epidemic along the Missouri in 1837. And while he might objectively easily be rated as a B-artist in regards to his artistic expression, Catlin bequeathed the world with a priceless legacy of documents he painted quite realistic and impartial, depicting a world that was destroyed by the advent of the white settlers only a few years later.
More of Catlin’s works can be found on
and more about George Catlin on