George Catlin was an American adventurer, lawyer, painter, author, and traveler, who specialized in portraits of Native Americans in the Old West.
Traveling to the American West five times during the 1830s, Catlin wrote about and painted portraits that depicted the life of the Plains Indians. His early work included engravings, drawn from nature, of sites along the route of the Erie Canal in New York State. Several of his renderings were published in one of the first printed books to use lithography, Cadwallader D. Colden's Memoir, Prepared at the Request of a Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York, and Presented to the Mayor of the City, at the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals, published in 1825, with early images of the City of Buffalo.
George Catlin was born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. While growing up, George encountered "trappers, hunters, explorers and settlers who stayed with his family on their travels west." As his father had trained at Litchfield Law School, George was sent there when he was 17, although he disliked the field of law. He was admitted to the Bar in 1819 and practiced law for two years before giving it up to travel and study art. In 1823, he studied art in Philadelphia and became known for his work as a portraitist. After a meeting with "tribal delegation of Indians from the western frontier, Catlin became eager to preserve a record of Native American customs and individuals."
Catlin began his journey in 1830 when he accompanied Governor William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into Native American territory. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes. Two years later he ascended the Missouri River more than 3000 km (1900 miles) to Fort Union Trading Post, near what is now the North Dakota-Montana border, where he spent several weeks among indigenous people who were still relatively untouched by European culture. He visited eighteen tribes, including the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south and the Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet to the north. There he produced the most vivid and penetrating portraits of his career. During later trips along the Arkansas, Red, and Mississippi rivers, as well as visits to Florida and the Great Lakes, he produced more than 500 paintings and gathered a substantial collection of artifacts.
When Catlin returned east in 1838, he assembled the paintings and numerous artifacts into his Indian Gallery, and began delivering public lectures that drew on his personal recollections of life among the American Indians. Catlin traveled with his Indian Gallery to major cities such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and New York. He hung his paintings "salon style"—side by side and one above another. Visitors identified each painting by the number on the frame, as listed in Catlin's catalogue. Soon afterward, he began a lifelong effort to sell his collection to the U.S. government. The touring Indian Gallery did not attract the paying public Catlin needed to stay financially sound, and the United States Congress rejected his initial petition to purchase the works.
In 1839 Catlin took his collection across the Atlantic for a tour of European capitals. As a showman and entrepreneur, he initially attracted crowds to his Indian Gallery in London, Brussels, and Paris. The French critic Charles Baudelaire remarked on Catlin's paintings, "He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness."
Catlin wanted to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government to have his life's work preserved intact. His continued attempts to persuade various officials in Washington, D.C. to buy the collection failed. In 1852 he was forced to sell the original Indian Gallery, now 607 paintings, due to personal debts. The industrialist Joseph Harrison acquired the paintings and artifacts, which he stored in a factory in Philadelphia, as security.
Catlin spent the last 20 years of his life trying to re-create his collection, and recreated more than 400 paintings. This second collection of paintings is known as the "Cartoon Collection", since the works are based on the outlines he drew of the works from the 1830s.
In 1841 Catlin published Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, in two volumes, with approximately 300 engravings. Three years later he published 25 plates, entitled Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, and, in 1848, Eight Years' Travels and Residence in Europe.
From 1852 to 1857 he traveled through South and Central America and later returned for further exploration in the Far West. The record of these later years is contained in Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes (1868) and My Life among the Indians (ed. by N. G. Humphreys, 1909). Paintings of his Spanish American Indians are published.
In 1872, Catlin traveled to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year in Jersey City, New Jersey, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian "Castle". In 1879 Harrison's widow donated the original Indian Gallery, more than 500 works, along with related artifacts, to the Smithsonian.
The nearly complete surviving set of Catlin's first Indian Gallery, painted in the 1830s, is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection. The associated Catlin artifacts are in the collections of the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian. Some 700 sketches are held by the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Some artifacts from Catlin are in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology collections. The Huntington Library in San Marino, California also holds 239 of Catlin's illustrations of both North and South American Indians, as well as other illustrative and manuscript material by Catlin.
The accuracy of some of Catlin's observations has been questioned. He claimed to be the first white man to see the Minnesota pipestone quarries, and pipestone was named catlinite. Catlin exaggerated various features of the site, and his boastful account of his visit aroused his critics, who disputed his claim of being the first white man to investigate the quarry. Previous recorded white visitors include the Groselliers and Radisson, Father Louis Hennepin, Baron de Lahontan, and others. Lewis and Clark noted the pipestone quarry in their journals in 1805. The fur trader Philander Prescott had written another account of the area in 1831.
Catlin is also remembered for his research and writing on mouth breathing, inspired by observations made during his travels. This interest is linked to his non-fiction work, The Breath of Life(later retitled as Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life) in 1862. It was based on his experiences traveling through the West, where he observed a consistent lifestyle habit among all of the Native American communities he encountered: a preference for nose breathing over mouth breathing. He also observed that they had perfectly straight teeth. He repeatedly heard that this was because they believed that mouth breathing made an individual weak and caused disease, while nasal breathing made the body strong and prevented disease. He also observed that mothers repeatedly closed the mouth of their infants while they were sleeping, in order to instill nasal breathing as a habit. He thus wrote the book to document these observations, stating that "there is no person in society but who will find... improvement in health and enjoyment..." from keeping his or her mouth shut.
George Catlin met Clara Bartlett Gregory in 1828 in her hometown of Albany, New York. After their marriage, she accompanied him on one of his journeys west. They eventually had four children. Clara and his youngest son died while visiting Paris in 1845.
Catlin died on December 23, 1872, aged 76 years in Jersey City, Hudson County, New Jersey.