Initially trained as a lawyer, George Catlin abandoned that career in favor of art, which he first pursued in Philadelphia in 1821. Receiving instruction from Charles Wilson Peale and possibly Thomas Sully, he began to specialize in portraiture in Philadelphia and New York City. His first real interest in depicting Indians occurred when a delegation of chiefs en route to Washington affected him profoundly with their "silent and stoic dignity." Equally impressed with their exotic appearance, he decided to make them the subject of his life's work. As he put it, "the history and customs of such people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country and of becoming their historian."
In 1832 Catlin traveled up the Missouri River aboard the steamer "Yellowstone," first painting portraits of famous chiefs and then switching his attention to rituals, dances, feasts, everyday activities, the hunt and the chase. Throughout the next four years he continued to make periodic excursions into the unsettled West, producing an extraordinary documentary of his wilderness travels. By 1847 he had visited over 48 indigenous tribes and painted from life some 500 portraits and other studies depicting Indian life. Catlin, ever the lecturer and promoter, assembled this large collection along with countless costumes, artifacts and other paraphernalia, and took it first to New York where it met with much success. In 1839, what became known as the Catlin Indian Gallery traveled to England finding the favor of Queen Victoria's Court. In 1844, the Gallery visited King Louis Phillippe in Paris. Thrilled with the display, the king provided exhibition room for the Gallery in the Louvre and commissioned fifteen Indian paintings from the artist.
Plagued by financial difficulties throughout his career, Catlin, in the late 1840's, began producing bound volumes of drawings for sale. Today the drawings are highly prized for the accurate depiction of Indian beadwork, costumes, feathered headdresses and tomahawks.
Before Catlin concluded his long career, he had captured on canvas virtually every aspect of Indian life in both North and South America. For him the American West was "the great and almost boundless garden spot of the earth, over whose green enameled fields, as . . . free as the ocean's waves, Nature's proudest, noblest men have pranced on their wild horses, and extended, through a series of ages, their long arms in orisons of praise to the Great Spirit in the sun, for the freedom and happiness of their existence." Catlin continued as a tireless champion of the Native American until his death in 1872.
ARTWORK: George Catlin
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