Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - October - 2002 Issue

George Catlin's Native American Journey

Scatlin2

by AE Staff

The Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery presents "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" now through January 19, 2003. The Gallery contains portraits, landscapes, costumes, tools, and even a replica Sioux/Cheyenne-style tipi. There are more than 600 paintings--350 that are portraits of men and women of 48 different tribes and 250 that describe Native American landscapes, village scenes, games, and customs.

Catlin’s collection started in 1832 when he left “unaided and unadvised” to capture in brush strokes the manners and customs of the North American Indians. Catlin, a lawyer turned artist, chose art as a form of education and a way to advocate the Native American way of life. He believed that the rapid decline in the Native American population would lead to their extinction so he wanted to “rescue [them] from oblivion.” Over the next eight years, Catlin traveled to the West five different times to paint the Plains Indians. In doing so, he became the first artist to record Native Americans in their own territories.

During the 1840s Catlin took to displaying his Gallery in eastern capitals throughout the United States and European cities. Catlin lectured, staged re-creations of Native American ceremonies, and eventually hired an Indian band to travel with the Gallery. Initially Catlin’s efforts were to educate those in the cities on Native Americans but soon it became an act of financial desperation. Catlin wanted to sell his collection as a whole to the United States government to encourage lifelong learning, but to no avail. In fact, Catlin could not find a buyer for the entire collection and went bankrupt in 1852. Businessman Joseph Harrison, Jr. paid off Catlin’s creditors and shipped the Gallery back to his home in Philadelphia. Shortly after Catlin’s death in 1872, Harrison’s wife donated the collection to the Smithsonian.

The Gallery is displayed “salon style,” exactly the way it would have been at the 1840 opening in London’s Egyptian Hall. The paintings are floor to ceiling with each frame numbered and their description in an accompanying catalog created especially for the exhibit. Catlin’s portraits of Indian chiefs, warriors, and even children stare at the visitor from the second floor exhibition hall in the Renwick Gallery. Mixed with the portraits are landscape paintings; images of bears, buffalos, and horses; rare books written and illustrated by Catlin; and clothing, shoes, and ornamental head dresses.

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