Tag Archives: Smithsonian Institution

Before They’re Gone–The Work of George Catlin

George-Catlin-frontispiece-200There are many artists known for their paintings of the West, but the one whose work enthralls me the most is George Catlin.  Working somewhat in the ‘naive’  style, Catlin’s life work was to capture the American Indian before they vanished, and this he did:  his subjects came from over fifty nations.

Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, later moving to upstate New York, Catlin’s fascination with American Indians started at an early age. His mother had regaled him with her tales of being a captive of the Iroquois during the Revolutionary War, and his cheek bore a scar from a ‘tomahawk’ thrown in a childhood game.

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

Ojibwa woman, ca. 1832

An encounter in 1805 with an Oneida may also have influenced him.   Although he initially studied law, Catlin was accepted by the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and started his career as a portraitist. Successful enough to be commissioned by clients such as Sam Houston and Dolly Madison, Catlin spent time in Philadelphia’s museums painting tribal costumes, weapons and ornaments brought back by Lewis and Clark. When a delegation of Native Americans came to Philadelphia in full regalia, his ambition took root. Continue reading