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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 515

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This is the grave of George Catlin.

Born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Catlin grew up obsessed with the indigenous peoples who his ancestors had recently driven out of the region. His mother had briefly been captured by a tribe during one of the wars and he was fascinated by this. As a child, while in Philadelphia, he saw a group of Native Americans walking through the city. Again, he was amazed.

Catlin went into art as a field. He was interested in the New York landscape, like many people at this time in the burgeoning Hudson River School. He also painted a bunch of images of the Erie Canal as it was being built and newly constructed. Catlin also became a lawyer for a brief time but didn’t enjoy it. He was still obsessed by Indians. So, in 1830, he got William Clark, from Lewis & Clark fame, to let him accompany a party up the Mississippi River to visit some tribes. This would be the first of five such expeditions he would make between 1830 and 1836. Over these expeditions, he visited more than 50 peoples and painted many pictures of them that would help defined the Native American in the American mind. In 1832 for instance, he took a trip up the Missouri that led to the North Dakota-Montana border, where he got to see and paint peoples such as the Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Mandan. He went to Florida, to the Great Lakes, anywhere he could to paint some Native Americans.

By 1838, Catlin had painted a pretty wide swathe of America’s Native peoples. It was time to display and profit off of it. He created his Indian Gallery, a traveling collection of his work as well as artifacts. He went to cities such as Pittsburgh, New York, and Cincinnati, displaying all this and giving lectures on his thoughts about Indians. He displayed his work like a salon–the style of the day–which meant stuffing as many pieces on a given wall as possible. He wanted to sell the entire collection to the government, but the government–which was pretty cheap during these years anyway–had little interest. Catlin did not make the money he needed to keep his lifestyle afloat. He then tried to write books to promote his work. In 1841, he published Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, which included over 300 engravings. Catlin spent much of the 1840s in Europe trying to drum up interest in his work there and in 1848, wrote Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe. He was married, though away from home an awful lot, and his wife died in Paris in 1845. There were rumors that Catlin also had a Native American family, but who knows. It is clearly possible and was quite common among whites who spent a lot of time in Indian villages.

In 1852, Catlin finally had to sell the whole collection to a Philadelphia industrialist just to pay off his debts. He then attempted to recreate the entire thing from his memory and notes. He again traveled around the nation to paint Native peoples, particularly in the nation’s new territories of the West. He also took trips to Latin America to continue his work there. He was on the move for most of the period between 1852 and 1857. He published another book based on these travels, 1868’s Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes.

In post-Civil War America, romanticizing Native Americans set in at the exact same time that the military was conducting genocidal campaigns against them in the West to end all resistance to white domination and the same time that the nation was engaging in cultural genocide through institutions such as Carlisle Indian School. With the theory of evolution on the rise in its most blunt and racist forms through Social Darwinism, many people felt that Native Americans were on the road to extinction, out-competed by superior Anglo-Saxons. The field of anthropology developed to document and collect things from Native cultures so future Americans could study these now-gone people. Moreover, the romance of Native American life began to impact popular culture, as the cheap literature of the day demonstrated. All of this led to renewed interest in Catlin’s work. In 1872, the Smithsonian Institution’s first secretary, Joseph Henry, invited Catlin to come to Washington on a permanent basis to continue his work. Finally, he had government support. He worked in an office in the Smithsonian Castle until his death later that year. He was 76 years old.

Catlin’s work managed to survive. The Philadelphia industrialist kept almost all of it and his widow donated the whole thing to the Smithsonian in 1879. Catlin’s observations are interesting, but he was far from some coldly analyzing anthropologist. His work is very much infused with the racist ideas of the day. Many of his claims were exaggerated and some easily disproven. Nonetheless, his art does provide a tremendous amount of documentation we have, especially visual documentation, of Native people in the pre-Civil War period. For that alone, it is extremely important.

Let’s look at some of Catlin’s work:

Little Bear, Hunkpapa Brave, 1832
Mó-sho-la-túb-bee, He Who Puts Out and Kills, Chief of the Choctaw Tribe,1834
Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon’s Egg Head (The Light), Going To and Returning From Washington, 1837–1839 (Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ball-play of the Choctaw – Ball Up, 1846–1850

George Catlin is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. There is a statue of more recent vintage placed near his grave as well:

Not sure I’m a big fan of that.

If you would like this series to visit more artists depicting the 19th century American West, for all their flaws, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Edward Curtis is in Glendale, California and Thomas Moran is in East Hampton, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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