Editor's note: The Smithsonian American Art Museum provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Smithsonian American Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


George Catlin and His Indian Gallery


The exhibition "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery," on view September 6, 2002 through January 19, 2003, celebrates a crown jewel in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection-the nearly complete surviving set of Catlin's first Indian Gallery painted in the 1830s. It is the most comprehensive display of Catlin's work in over a century and includes artifacts Catlin collected while in Plains Indian country. This exhibition is more than just the story of a single artist; it speaks to the encounter of two cultures in North America.

"Catlin's Indian Gallery is an unparalleled collection of great artistic and historic significance that contributes to understanding America's frontier and the cultures of the Native Americans who lived there," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's Margaret and Terry Stent Director. "This exhibition conveys Catlin's regard for the rich heritage of the Plains tribes and inspires our admiration for it today."

The exhibition features more than 400 objects and is one of the largest ever organized by the museum. It is installed on two floors at the museum's Renwick Gallery. "Catlin in America" begins on the first floor and tells the story of his early work in Philadelphia and his epic journeys across the Plains, following the Lewis and Clark trail. "Catlin in Europe" occupies the Grand Salon on the second floor, and is installed in a way that recalls the Indian Gallery as Catlin displayed it during his tours in Europe. This section includes 230 paintings, archival materials and a canvas tipi 24-feet high.

Visitors to the exhibition will experience the excitement of Catlin's journey up the Missouri River, a buffalo stampede and a prairie fire in the exhibition's "surround video" gallery. Catlin was one of the first artists to paint these phenomena for audiences in eastern America and Europe.

George Catlin (1796­1872), a lawyer turned painter, decided in the 1820s that he would make it his life's work to record the life and culture of American Indians living on the Plains. In 1830, Catlin visited Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory, superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became Catlin's mentor, showing him his Indian museum, introducing him to the American Fur Trading Co., and taking him to visit Plains tribes. In 1832, Catlin made an epic journey that stretched over 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for the five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting 50 tribes.

"Catlin was the first major artist to travel beyond the Mississippi to record what he called the 'manners and customs' of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life in the open air," said Deputy Chief Curator George Gurney. "His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830."

Catlin's quest turned into a lifelong obsession that shaped his subsequent travels and the course of his life. In pursuit of his goals, this artist also became an explorer, historian, anthropologist, geologist, collector, journalist, author, lecturer and promoter. Catlin's dream was to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government so that his life's work would be preserved intact. After several failed attempts to persuade various officials, he toured with it in Europe in the 1840s, where he often featured Native Americans dancing, creating the earliest version of what would later become the Wild West show. Tragically, he was forced to sell the original Indian Gallery due to personal debts in 1852. He then spent the last 20 years of his life trying to re-create his collection.

In 1872, Catlin came to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian "Castle." A Philadelphia collector's widow donated the original Indian Gallery-more than 500 works-to the Smithsonian in 1879.

George Catlin was a complicated and controversial figure in his own century and remains so today. In his introduction to the companion book to the exhibition, W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, writes: "A native person is challenged . . . not to feel on some level a profound resentment toward Catlin; his obsession with depicting Indians has an extremely invasive undertone to it. . . . [But] Catlin placed great value on Indians and their cultures, revealing genuine concern at how they were being systematically stressed or destroyed by non-Indians. No artist could so passionately pour himself into his work the way Catlin did without having sincere respect and affection for the subjects of his work."


About George Catlin

"If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me short of visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America."
 ­George Catlin

George Catlin's life (1796­1872) is a fascinating tale of a self-taught artist. Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1796. Although trained as a lawyer in Connecticut, he defied his father's wishes and chose to follow his dream of becoming a portraitist and history painter, and in particular, a painter of Native Americans. We can trace this interest back to the early 1820s when he witnessed a delegation of Indians visiting Philadelphia, where he was supporting himself by painting miniatures. Catlin wrote "a delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the 'Far West,' suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty . . . tinted and tasselled off, exactly for the painter's palette!" Catlin had discovered his calling.

Catlin yearned to record the native cultures on the Plains, rather than making studio portraits of the delegations that traveled east to meet with the U.S. government. In 1830, Catlin visited General William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory and superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became his mentor, showing Catlin his Indian museum, introducing him to the American Fur Trading Company, and taking him to visit Plains tribes. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes.

In 1832, Catlin took an epic journey that stretched over two thousand miles along the upper Missouri River. He visited eighteen tribes, including the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south and the Mandan, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet to the north. On his trips, Catlin wanted to record not only a way of life but also the noble faces of the American Indians he encountered. He came to understand that buffalo were essential to the Plains Indians' culture. The animals provided food, clothing, shelter and a product they could sell or trade.

As Catlin traveled farther north in the territories, he encountered what he believed to be Indian tribes unspoiled by Euro-American civilization. He painted a number of striking portraits of the Mandan tribe that convey his view. "It is for the character and preservation of these noble fellows that I am an enthusiast; and it is for these uncontaminated people that I would be willing to devote the energies of my life," Catlin wrote.

The more time Catlin spent living with Native Americans, the more critical he became of U.S. government policies and of the corrupting influence of trappers, settlers and other non-native peoples on Plains Indian cultures. There was an urgency to Catlin's quest, for the cultures he was so anxious to record were being irrevocably altered. His first trip to St. Louis coincided with the beginning of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the migration of Indians from the land east of the Mississippi. The steamboat allowed more and more settlers to travel to the western frontier. Many of the tribes Catlin painted were being ravaged by smallpox. Catlin's paintings and his journal became a crucial record of their customs.

Critics questioned the accuracy of Catlin's depictions and sensational descriptions of the torturous Mandan O-kee-pa ceremony. The unique nature of Catlin's record also caused him problems, since the smallpox epidemic left few Mandans to verify his account. Other early visitors to the northern Plains eventually confirmed the details, but questions about the veracity of Catlin's work haunted him until his death.

When Catlin returned east in 1838, he assembled over 500 paintings and numerous artifacts into his Indian Gallery that he toured to major cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and New York. He hung his paintings "salon style"-side by side and one above another-to great effect. Visitors identified each painting by the number on the frame as listed in Catlin's catalogue. Unfortunately, the Indian Gallery did not attract the paying public Catlin needed to stay financially sound, so in 1839 he took his Indian Gallery across the Atlantic for a tour of European capitals.

Catlin the showman and entrepreneur initially attracted crowds to his Indian Gallery in London, Brussels, and Paris. The French critic Charles Baudelaire remarked on Catlin's paintings, "M. Catlin has captured the proud, free character and noble expression of these splendid fellows in a masterly way."

Increasingly sensational aspects such as mock battles and staged publicity stunts were incorporated into the show to attract visitors. Catlin initially included live grizzly bears, but they proved so destructive they were replaced with paintings. Even more controversial was the addition of American Indians, members of the Ojibwe and Iowa tribes, who danced and sang. Catlin was accused of exploiting the Indians, but he defended his actions by claiming he was rescuing them from unscrupulous promoters.

By 1852, Catlin was in such financial trouble that he had to sell his original Indian Gallery to meet his debts. Industrialist Joseph Harrison purchased the collection, which then languished in his steam boiler factory in Philadelphia. Catlin tirelessly lobbied the U.S. government to purchase his Indian Gallery to no avail. In 1870, exhausted, bankrupt, and a widower, Catlin returned to the United States.

In 1872, Catlin came to Washington, D.C., at the request of his friend Joseph Henry. Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, invited Catlin to take a studio in the tower of the Smithsonian "Castle" and to exhibit some of his work. Catlin died that same year. Seven years later, Smithsonian Secretary Spencer Baird, Henry's successor, approached Sarah Harrison, Joseph Harrison's widow, about donating the collection to the Smithsonian, which she did in 1879. The Smithsonian now holds many of Catlin's paintings, artifacts, papers, maps and books, thereby creating this unique historic resource.



The Smithsonian American Art Museum is co-publishing a book, titled George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, with W.W. Norton & Co. The book includes 120 color plates with extended captions by Joan Troccoli; essays by Brian Dippie, Christopher Mulvey and Therese Heyman; an introduction by W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; and a preface by Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book is available for purchase at the Renwick Gallery store, on the museum's Web site and at bookstores nationwide.

A free color brochure is available in the exhibition.


Television Program

The museum is producing a half-hour documentary with Northern Light Productions that presents the themes of the exhibition and Catlin's remarkable life within the wider context of Westward expansion, and includes on-camera interviews with scholars and members of American Indian tribes that Catlin visited. The television program, titled "Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians," will be syndicated nationally and distributed as an educational video.


Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians is a 26 minute video produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Northern Light Productions in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Experience Catlin's epic journey up the Missouri River, following parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail; hear about his frontier adventures as told by Catlin himself; and learn about this incredible encounter of two cultures through the voices of Native Americans today.




To celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, 120 paintings and artifacts from "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" will travel to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (Feb. 7 ­ April 18, 2004); the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles (May 9 ­ Aug. 4, 2004); and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Sept. 19, 2004 ­ Jan. 2, 2005).

rev. 9/6/05

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.