"The West's Best"

by Peter MacMillan Booth








Western Art had its genesis early in the 1800s when explorer artists went west individually or with expeditions to document America's vast new possessions.

Soon after the Louisiana Purchase, government expeditions, private fur companies and individuals went west of the Mississippi River to explore the new territories. Often, natural and topographical illustrators were part of the parties, brought along to scientifically document the West's flora, fauna, inhabitants, and scenery. These "explorer artists" were visual recorders of the new discoveries. Though intending to be purely objective, their aesthetic tastes could not help but be influenced by the awe and wonder of the new lands. This artwork influenced others who launched their own journeys westward. One of the foremost Western artists in this tradition, George Catlin, held a special fascination with Native peoples. He embarked on a career to record as many tribes as possible. The artist likewise intrigued Native Peoples who patiently waited in line to have their portraits painted. In fact, his outdoor studio became a neutral ground with bitter enemies calling a truce to allow Catlin to preserve each other's image on canvas. Work emanating from Catlin and other explorer artists started America's fascination and love affair with the wonders of the West.


Key Artist

George Catlin


The son of a lawyer, George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he heard tales of the Indians from settlers, hunters, and soldiers who returned from the Frontier. He studied law, but preferred to paint. Though starting out as a portrait artist, he soon switched to American Indians after he saw his calling in life as that of an ethnographer more than an artist. Distressed that the Indians may be facing extinction, Catlin embarked on a career of recording as much information about as many tribes as he could. His travels eventually took him from Alaska to the Amazon, but one of Catlin's first and most memorable trips was to follow Lewis and Clark's 2000-mile route up the Missouri River in 1832. This experience formed the nucleus from which his famed "Indian Gallery" started and the material for the books and articles he later published.

The original Catlin painting, Black Hawk and the Prophet, an oil on wood panel, was done just over a year before he died. By this time, he was totally deaf and pet mice were his only companions.. He had been provided a studio in the Smithsonian (in a failed attempt by that museum to get the U.S. Congress to buy Catlin's collection). Catlin was trying to recreate his "Indian Gallery" from memory. The original gallery had been sold to locomotive manufacturer Joseph Harrison who put them in the leaky basement of his boiler factory and forgot about them.

Catlin's method with this second attempt at building an "Indian Gallery" was to do ink and pencil sketches, washing in the color later. "Black Hawk" hearkens to Catlin's original desire to become a history painter in the tradition of Benjamin West. This work is a portrait of Black Hawk, the Prophet and Keeokuk during the Black Hawk War of 1831. DCWM also displays two examples of Catlin's the thirty-one plate, hand-colorized lithograph series he produced in 1844 (the Museum has the complete run in its collection). As a side note, Catlin produced the lithograph series while in England displaying his "Indian Gallery" in London. This exhibition has been called the first great "Wild West Show."

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

return to page 1 of "The West's Best"; Gallery Guide by Peter MacMillan Booth

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. [rev. 5/9/12]

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