Born in Philadelphia on July 26, 1796, George Catlin became known as the first artist to focus on the Plains Indians as his specialist subject. He worked as a lawyer until 1823 when, although he was self-taught as an artist, he began to establish himself as a portrait painter. In 1826 he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Design.
In 1828 Catlin saw a delegation of Plains Indians who were passing through Philadelphia on their way to Washington DC to lobby the US Government over their land rights. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the migration and resettlement of Native American tribes and George Catlin, who had a lifelong interest in their way of life, set off to make a visual record before their way of life became corrupted or disappeared entirely under the new legislation.
At the time of Catlin’s birth a major theme inthe Age of Enlightenment was the concept of natural self-rule and the benefits of living cooperatively in small communities. Catlin saw these attributes in the Native American culture and admired how they held sovereignty over the land they inhabited.
Between 1830 and 1836 Catlin made five excursions west of the Mississippi River to visit fifty different tribes and record their customs. He started by drawing scenes of their traditional way of life and made portrait sketches of their tribal leaders.
In his Philadelphia studio Catlin worked up his sketches into drawings, watercolor paintings and oil paintings, often replicating the same subject in multiple forms. He hoped that his Indian Collection would end up as the basis for some sort of national museum dedicated to preserving the images of a native culture that was soon to be lost.
Catlin started to show his works to audiences in the Eastern states. He toured with his collection of paintings, which included a hundred Western landscapes, twelve scenes of buffalo hunting, four depictions of an annual religious ceremony, more than three hundred portraits and other subjects advocating the culture and traditions of different North American Indian tribes.
Congress failed to show any interest in turning his collection into a national archive or placing it in a museum, so in 1839 Catlin took his paintings on a European tour.
A collection of 25 lithographs printed in 1844 and titled The North American Indian Portfolio included twelve scenes of buffalo hunting and several that just portrayed buffalo in the wild. These images fascinated many of the people who viewed them.
Catlin also hosted what was later to become known as a Wild West show. He took Native Americans with him on his travels through the Eastern states and Europe, to demonstrate authentic war dances and take part in traditional ceremonies.
By 1852 Catlin was declared bankrupt. His debts were cleared by a philanthropist from Philadelphia who purchased the entire Indian Gallery collection.
After Catlin died on December 23, 1872, the owner of his collection offered it to the Smithsonian, where the Indian Gallery has since became recognized as being of national value. As a cultural archive and collection of artworks, George Catlin’s Indian Gallery reflects a significant time in American history.
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