Saturday Art: George Catlin
Born into a well placed Pennsylvania family, the artist originally conceded to his father’s wishes and entered the law. Finding himself sketching courtroom scenes and unable to concentrate on his career in it, Catlin began to paint and was given commissions for portraits of many in his social realm. He felt a lack of purpose until he encountered a delegation of tribal members and began to paint those subjects.
He had a deep interest in the tribes, and his mother’s tales from having been captured by Iroquois as a child and released unharmed colored his childhood memories. When he located to St. Louis to observe more closely following the encounter with tribal members, he left family behind to achieve the purpose he felt would help to keep debilitating influences from the tribes that he thought were harmful to them.
Having already explored the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis, Clark was then the government’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Western tribes. Catlin presented his early portraits to the general and asked for Clark’s assistance in making contact with Indians in the West. Clark was skeptical at first, but Catlin convinced him of the sincerity of his quest. That summer, Clark took Catlin some 400 miles up the Mississippi River to FortCrawford, where several tribes—the Sauk, Fox and Sioux among them—were having a council. Surrounded by gruff soldiers and somber Indians, whose customs were largely a mystery, Catlin took out his brushes and went to work. He would stay in the West six years, though he returned most winters to his family.
During those years, he painted 300 portraits and nearly 175 landscapes and ritual scenes. Back in New York City in 1837, he displayed them salon-style, stacked floor to ceiling, one above the other—row after row of faces identified by name and number—an arrangement to which the Renwick has been largely faithful. More than a century and a half later, there remains something startling and immediate about the faces. At first glance, they seem condemning, as if daring us to look at them without guilt. But after contemplating them awhile, they appear less forbidding. Catlin called his gallery a “collection of Nature’s dignitaries,” and dignity indeed makes certain individuals stand out. A stately Chief Kee-o-kuk of the Sauk and Fox proudly holds tomahawk, blanket and staff. La-dóo-ke-a (Buffalo Bull), a Pawnee warrior, poses commandingly in full ceremonial paint. Catlin’s landscapes are equally evocative, depicting virgin rivers and rolling hills as if from the air.
Throughout Catlin’s career, journalists tended to praise his work even as some art critics dismissed him as an “American primitive,” calling his artistry “deficient in drawing, perspective and finish.” More controversial was his attitude toward people most Americans then regarded as savages. Catlin denounced the term, calling it “an abuse of the word, and the people to whom it is applied.” He praised Indians as “honest, hospitable, faithful . . . ” and criticized the government and fur traders alike for their treatment of natives. Indian society, he wrote, “has become degraded and impoverished, and their character changed by civilized teaching, and their worst passions inflamed . . . by the abuses practiced amongst them.”
Sioux medicine men predicted dire consequences for those whose souls he captured on canvas, yet Blackfoot medicine men readily allowed themselves to be painted. The Mandan, awed by Catlin’s ability to render likenesses, called him Medicine White Man. Sometimes his portraits stirred up trouble. Once among the Hunkpapa Sioux on the Missouri River, he painted Chief Little Bear in profile. When the portrait was nearly finished, a rival saw it and taunted, “[The artist] knows you are but half a man, for he has painted but half of your face!” The chief ignored the affront, and when the portrait was done, he presented Catlin with a buckskin shirt decorated with porcupine quills. But the insult led to an intertribal war that claimed many lives. Some Sioux blamed Catlin and condemned him to death, but by then he had moved farther upriver.
In 1836, despite the vehement protests of Sioux elders, Catlin insisted on visiting a sacred, red-stone quarry in southwestern Minnesota that provided the Sioux with the bowls for their ceremonial pipes. No Indian would escort him, and fur traders, angry about his letters in newspapers condemning them for corrupting the Indians, also refused. So Catlin and a companion traveled 360 miles round-trip on horseback. The unique red pipestone he found there today bears the name catlinite. “Man feels here the thrilling sensation, the force of illimitable freedom,” Catlin wrote, “there is poetry in the very air of this place.”
Except for his run-in over the quarry, Catlin maintained excellent relations with his various hosts. They escorted him through hostile areas and invited him to feasts of dog meat, beaver tail and buffalo tongue. “No Indian ever betrayed me, struck me with a blow, or stole from me a shilling’s worth of my property. . . ,” he later wrote. By 1836, his last year in the West, Catlin had visited 48 tribes. He would spend the rest of his life trying to market his work, leading him to the brink of ruin.
Much of the treasure he saved has since disappeared, and Catlin’s portrayals give us a look into the society he admired and tried to portray in all its dignity and uniqueness.(Picture courtesy of sinewy polyp, flickr.com.)
(Picture courtesy of Thruhlke98 at flickr.com.)