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Remembering the American West Through Art

Updated on May 13, 2020

Mah-To-Toh-Pa, Four Bears 1832

Second Chief, Four Bears 1832
Second Chief, Four Bears 1832 | Source

.Mr. and Mrs. George Catlin

George Catlin
George Catlin
Clara Bartlett Catlin
Clara Bartlett Catlin

George Catlin

George was born in 1796, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His father was Putnam Catlin (1764-1842 and Mary "Polly" Sutton (1770-1844. As a young boy, George hunted the farm for Indian artifacts he could find. His mother used to tell him the story of when the Iroquois Indians captured her and his grandmother after the massacre of the Battle of Wyoming, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, they were returned unharmed later. This could have been the catalyst that prompted George to learn all he could about the Native Americans.

George was small of stature weighing 135 pounds, standing 5'8: but what he went on to accomplish made him a giant among artists capturing the picturesque lives of the American Natives. George was a dreamer.

After his education, he did work as a lawyer but couldn't dismiss his fascination with Native Americans. But the call of the west prompted him to follow is quest painting the Native Indians, so he moved to St. Louis to set up his base of operations. Although self-taught as an artist, George had empathy for the Indians, and it would show in his paintings. His goal was to visit fifty tribes to capture their cultures, music, and customs.

Starting in 1830, he began painting the Native Americans and their villages. After accumulating hundreds of paintings along with artifacts, he returned east for exhibitions in Pittsburg, Cleveland, and New York. He attempted to sell his collection to the U.S. government but was unsuccessful even though Daniel Webster said it was more important than even some recent discoveries of the states.

In 1839 he toured Europe, Brussels, and Paris. Although critics praised his work, he was not earning enough to settle his debts.

In 1852 he was forced to sell his original Indian Gallery consisting of over 600 paintings. The industrialist, Joseph Harrison, bought his collection and stored it in a warehouse in Philadelphia as security. For the last twenty years of his life, George tried to recreate part of his original collection, calling it "Cartoon Collection."

George would spend his life trying to recreate his original Indian Gallery. Because of his dedication, passion, and wisdom in preserving the lives of the American Indians, we are left with his legacy.


Mary "Polly" Catlin, Mother of George Catlin

Mary "Polly" Catlin
Mary "Polly" Catlin | Source
Mandan Medicine Man
Mandan Medicine Man
Sioux Mother
Sioux Mother
Mandan Village
Mandan Village

Working at the Smithsonian

In 1872, George went back to Washington at the invitation by Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. George had a studio at the Smithsonian and would work there until his death in 1872. Throughout his career, he was both heralded and criticized for his paintings. Some considered them "primitive" and not entirely professional. Yet today, he is credited with giving us a perfect record of the American Natives before they were lost to history.

While in London, George even spent time in Debtors Prison, and his brother-in-law bailed him out and took George and his daughters back to America. It was fortunate he was able to work at the Smithsonian until his death.

In 1879, Harrison's widow donated his original Indian Gallery of 500 works and artifacts to the Smithsonian which is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Other artifacts are in the Natural Museum of Natural History, New York City. Other collections are housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum, and a few are in the collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

In 1965, Paul Mellon donated over 300 paintings he had purchased to the National Gallery of Art.

Although there are several books both by Catlin and others, one of the best and as a coffee-table book, is the book George Catlin and His Indian Gallery. This 288-page book is full of superb illustrations, and they are on thick paper worth collecting. Its a book showing the vivid colors George used in his paintings.


Other Artists of the American West

Other artists were also famous like Catlin, but none captured the energy of the American Indians. Some of those include Edward S. Curtis, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederick Remington, and Charles Bird King. All of them were famous for their individual skills and should not be forgotten.

Comments

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    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      14 months ago from Chicago

      I love this Hub and these magnificent works of art. A time remembered. Thank you for the journey.

    • powers41 profile imageAUTHOR

      fran rooks 

      14 months ago from Toledo, Ohio

      Donna, thank you for reading. Wow, what history you must have. I hope you write it all down for your future generations. Which tribe of Native Americans are you connected with?

    • Donna-Rayne profile image

      Donna Rayne 

      14 months ago from Greenwood, Indiana

      Fran, this was an absolutely beautiful article about some of my ancestors. I'm part Indian and my grandmother and mother told me stories of old and my mom was raised on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. I enjoyed your article and I thank you for writing it and sharing it.

      Have a blessed day!

      Donna Rayne

    • surovi99 profile image

      Rosina S Khan 

      14 months ago

      Fran, I have published a new episode for the story series, "Keily, the Bookworm". Let me know how you like it. Here is the link:

      https://letterpile.com/serializations/Keily-the-Bo...

    • surovi99 profile image

      Rosina S Khan 

      14 months ago

      It was good to know about George Catlin who captured American Indians through his famous paintings. I enjoyed reading this hub full of wonderful pictures. A fabulous hub, Fran.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      14 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting angle on the American west. The art work of this time gives a great historical perspective.

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