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George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio

May 2024
1min read

Introduction by James Gilreath; Abbeville Press/Library of Congress; 31 plates.

During his journey through the wilderness of the American West, George CatHn encountered a world so untamed that many people back East refused to believe what he saw. In 1830 he had abandoned his wife and family in Pennsylvania and ventured west to paint the Native Americans who had intrigued him since childhood. Catlin was on a mission, he said, to identify “some branch or enterprise of the arts, on which to devote a whole life-time of enthusiasm.” He found it at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, painting Plains Indians.

Catlin produced over three hundred oil paintings in six years of living with the Indians and studying their habits, and he captured many of the activities and customs that distinguished their culture. He depicted buffalo hunts, traditional dances, and even the Comanches’ primitive game of lacrosse, in which, he noted in a detailed description of the painting, “five or six hundred youths, with chastened and oiled limbs, and with empty stomachs” took to the field to prove their skill and strength. Because many players wagered much of their personal property on the outcome, they were often willing to risk their lives for victory. With so much at stake, wives involved themselves by chasing and whipping their husbands to increase their performance. Moreover, games could last an entire day because a hundred goals were needed to win. Catlin painted this and other Indian rituals at a time when his contemporaries were producing only static portraits.

In an effort to capitalize on his work, Catlin transformed his paintings into a hand-painted book of lithographs in 1844, calling it North American Indian Portfolio . This portfolio has now been reproduced in a full-color facsimile of Catlin’s thirty-one original lithographs. James Gilreath’s introduction to these superb reproductions traces Catlin’s life and hints at his motivation: Catlin, he writes, “was the type of person whose sense of self-esteem was determined by the feeling that he was an active participant in some cosmic idea or movement that could change history.” Guaranteeing the Indians’ survival became Catlin’s movement, and he was the first artist to do field work among their tribes. Whether painting a wild-eyed Blackfoot stepping over a buffalo’s back to escape death or a group of Sioux dancing in bearskins, Catlin let his admiration for the Plains Indians show through his art. Catlin’s own descriptions accompany each lithograph and testify to the extent of his knowledge and respect for the Indians’ life-style.

Catlin fought hard to save Native American culture and managed to capture much of its glory before the government began herding the Indians into reservations. The westward tide of white settlement could not be stopped, of course, but Catlin did much to preserve the distinct identity and heritage of the Indians. His pictures endure as a powerful reminder of a special culture that once dominated the West.

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