The Art of George Catlin

Os-ce-o-la: The Black Drink, A Warrior of Great Distinction. (1838) George Catlin (1796-1872) American Artist, oil on canvas,
30.8 x 25.8 inches, image source

George Catlin has a very impressive catalogue of more than 500 paintings of the Native Americans of the Great Plains. It was his mission to record their images for future generations to have a greater understanding of their proud culture.

He writes ” by the aid of my brush and my pen, to rescue from oblivion so much of their primitive looks and customs as the industry and ardent enthusiasm of one lifetime could accomplish, and set them up in a gallery unique and imperishable for the use of future ages.”

Report of the National Museum, in the remarks to his catalogues of 1837-1848

Since it has been my general philosophy to encourage others to learn about the arts as a way to connect us instead of divide us, the life of George Catlin has stood as a sentinel of what is possible when one dedicates their life to the arts. Catlin’s mission was to record as best he could the Native American culture before it was lost by the westward expansion of the United States.

He begins this journey at age 36 because he had observed a delegation of Native Americans in Philadelphia. He was impressed by their intelligence and beauty. Because of this encounter he made 5 separate trips to visit the 50 tribes living west of the Mississippi River. Catlin also accompanies Clark, from the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, on several trips to sign various treaties with these tribes.

His works become an important historical record of:

  • Methods for hunting the Buffalo
  • Tribal ceremonies such as the Buffalo and Sun Dances
  • Braves in full regalia
  • Portraits and Landscapes
  • Sioux, Assinibone, Blackfeet, Crow and Mandan tribes

Catlin considered himself a historian making documentary record of a people and their culture rather than a great artist. He preserves forever the faces of the American West in their native garb and provides historians with images of what life was like in the West before the changes that were brought by the Railroad and the Homestead Act.

Caitlin is the first to write about the idea of creating a National Park somewhere at the head of the Missouri River. He writes:

What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up…A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty! I would ask no other monument to my memory…than the reputation of having been the founder of such and institution.

Artist George Catlin Proposed Creation of National Parks

Thirty years later, President Grant established Yellowstone National Park (1872)

In 1879, Sarah Harrison, whose husband had bought the collection to get Catlin out of debtor’s prison, donates his art to the Smithsonian.

You can now visit that art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D. C. I highly recommend a visit to this museum to see and experience Catlin’s work up close and to enjoy the vast collection of other American Art on exhibition there.

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