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The Wild Card

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery

Catalog of the exhibition edited by George Gurney and Therese Thau Heyman
an exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.,September 6, 2002–January 19, 2003. Smithsonian American Art Museum/Norton, 294 pp., $60.00; $34.95 (paper) http://americanart.si.edu/collections/exhibits/catlin

North American Indians

by George Catlin, with an introduction by Peter Matthiessen
Penguin, 522 pp., $15.00 (paper)

Native Americans: A Portrait: The Art and Travels of Charles Bird King, George Catlin, and Karl Bodmer

by Robert J. Moore Jr.
Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 279 pp., $60.00

One of the many peculiarities of George Catlin’s life and work is that while he is known as the painter of American Indian life, and is usually written about in purely historical and ethnographic terms, his pictures linger in the mind as the work of a virtuoso —an artist who wants nothing more than to show off his brilliant, improvisatory technique. It’s hard to think of another nineteenth-century American painter whose painting hand is so joyously visible, or whose work continues to present, as Catlin’s does, such a sense of artistic freedom and spontaneity. When we look at his various landscapes of the Plains, or his views of Indian life or of buffalo hunts, or his intense and glowing portraits of individual Sioux, say, or Mandan or Pawnee, what we see is the shimmering paintwork as much as the person or place. Catlin’s pictures are bound to make many viewers reflect on the troubled history of Native Americans in their own land, but in the way he turns painting into a matter of bright, glistening color, satiny surfaces, poetically awkward drawing, and a muscular physicality, he can make another set of viewers think as easily of Raoul Dufy or Alex Katz.

The Catlin exhibition now at the Renwick Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is the first significant showing of this artist’s work since 1979 and only the third large exhibition of his paintings since they came to the Smithsonian in the 1870s. It presents the work of a man about whom it could be said that making art was merely an aspect of a far larger mission. A trained lawyer who preferred to follow his love for painting (but never studied with anybody), Catlin had his life’s course set one day in 1828, in Philadelphia, when he saw some Indians, resplendent in their native clothes, who were visiting the city. Then thirty-two, Catlin knew that he had found his subject. By 1837, traveling by steamboat, horse, and canoe, and sometimes entirely by himself, he had made six trips into land beyond the frontier, reaching tribes in what is now Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. But his crucial trip was in 1832, when he followed the Missouri River into what is now the Dakotas and Montana. It was his longest trip, his first true immersion in the Plains, and from it he derived what are far and away his finest pictures. If he never painted after 1832—and, in a sense, he barely did—his achievement would remain the same.

Catlin worked with the conviction that the peoples whose faces, activities, and terrain he was recording were gradually being extinguished, and he was not alone in this belief. Native American tribes had been in the process of migrating westward, and succumbing to smallpox and falling prey to alcohol plied them by fur traders, for decades. The Removal Act of 1830, which called for the western resettlement of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations, merely put a congressional stamp on an unhappy exodus that had been underway and would continue regardless of government decrees. The urgency of making visual and written records of Indian existence had begun to impress itself on a number of people. But few were as dramatically marked by this challenge as was Catlin. Presenting Indian life in one way or another, including years spent in the role of a theater impresario in Europe, was what he did exclusively right until he died, in 1872.

Along the way, Catlin published ten books on the subject, one of which, its cumbrous original title now shortened to North American Indians, remains in print, in a handy, one-volume abridgment by Peter Matthiessen. Catlin the writer is a likable companion. In a rolling flow of foursquare, soundly structured sentences, buoyed by a mood of always sunny optimism (even as he talks about the dire fate of the Indians), he is equally a travel writer, a sociologist, and a pundit of the American conscience. His writing is a lot like his painting in that both present Indian life with a you-are-there freshness, strangeness, and humor— as in his account of a medicine man’s response to having his portrait made: “His vanity has been completely gratified in the operation; he lies for hours together, day after day, in my room, in front of his picture, gazing intensely upon it….”

Catlin is far more distinguished as a painter, however, because his pictures aren’t plagued by the garrulousness and after-dinner speechifying that weigh on his writing. His paintings are also free of the grandiloquent note that deadens so many nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings and photographs of Native American life— that note of a tragic people who are, at least, at one with the majestic sweep of the country’s untouched lands. Especially in his landscapes, which are generally composed of a number of big, broad, wavy strokes, with Indians, buffalo, or distant forts brushed in with a minimum of lines, and with those lines sometimes just barely resembling that Indian or buffalo, Catlin’s style is like that of a folk painter or a decorator of china, an artist who is both winging it and has developed a distinct manner, based on his abbreviations and shortcuts, for showing detail. If his landscapes connect with any of his contemporaries it is the quasi-folk artist Thomas Chambers, whose candybox, technicolor visions of waterfalls and sunsets at sea, with pokey little figures set here and there, are also among the more robust if unsung paintings of the period.

Catlin’s landscapes and panoramic views of Indian villages and encampments, along with his scenes of Indians playing games or hunting, may be the pictures that first draw viewers to him now. His primarily sharp-toned green landscapes, against which he plays off passages in tan, for teepees or bluffs by the side of a river, or red, for Indians themselves, or a pale blue, for skies, which are sometimes streaked with knife-sharp clouds, darted in with a stroke or two, have a pleasantly sourish, unmodulated, straight-from-the-tube clarity. The sheer amount of green that Catlin recorded will come as a surprise to most of us, with our sense of the prairie as a vast expanse of tan and brown. His ability to show countless people engaged in sport or work from a great distance is masterful, and because he draws in his figures and other details with freehand speed, we experience the reality of these scenes more than we do with the work of most of the academically trained artists, whether of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, who made Native American life a theme.

Rarely more than a foot or so in either dimension, however, Catlin’s landscapes when seen in actuality feel more like gorgeous notes than full-fledged works. Even though many have a monumental scale, as is the case with the often reproduced Prairie Meadows Burning (see illustration on page 10), which is as frightening and thrilling an image of impending malevolence as any in American art, Catlin’s views, and his often slightly larger scenes of Indian life, are in a lesser league than his portraits. It is in his portraits, which show him to have been a profound observer of people, sensitive to different moods, temperaments, and psychologies, that Catlin is a commanding artist.

Robert J. Moore Jr., in his 1997 Native Americans: A Portrait, provides a handy way of gauging Catlin’s perceptiveness and empathy. Moore presents the three major bodies of images of Indians from the early nineteenth century that have come down to us: that of Catlin; of the German watercolorist Karl Bodmer (who, traveling with his patron, a German prince, covered some of the same ground Catlin did a year later); and of the slightly earlier Charles Bird King, who painted Indians as they visited Washington. Moore believes that Bodmer’s presentation of Indian life is the finest of the three, yet while this artist was very precise about what his subjects wore, he was to my eye fundamentally an illustrator, and one with the unfortunate mannerisms of making the profile of nearly every one of his sitters exaggeratedly chiseled and of rendering the lips of his lifeless figures with the same disconcertingly curvy, louche line. (As for King, his few remaining paintings, although mildly charming, seem to present a group of white people who keep changing Indian outfits.)

Catlin’s great portraits are a little like machines, in that he paints different elements—faces, clothing, ornamentation, backgrounds—in different ways, and the visual excitement is in seeing how his separate approaches mesh. Faces in these works, which are always twenty-nine inches high by twenty-four inches wide, must have been the crucial, first stage for the artist. Each of his successful portrait heads is felt as a psychological whole. Ha-won-je-tah, for instance, is in Catlin’s hands a person of shading, character, dignity, and humor (see illustration on page 8). Catlin achieves this with a few drawn lines and the use of a soft brush, with barely any oil on it, which lightly runs over the surface, picking out, with subtle shifts in pressure, the projections and concavities of a face. With what these sitters wear or carry, a more impetuous and rambunctious Catlin takes over. Jewelry and clothing, feathers, pipes, and tomahawks are painted with swift, sure, brushy brushwork, with the shadows cast by a necklace, say, being but a movement of a brush and yet with all the many textures of quill, feather, bead, and hide that the Indians carried on their persons sensuously accounted for.

We seem to watch Catlin running out of energy as he works, sometimes only drawing in the outline of the lower half of a sitter’s body and almost always filling in the background with the wispiest tints, merely to suggest sky and land. Even hands holding weapons or pipes are barely sketched in. Yet their being a jumble of differently modulated elements is why these pictures are so immediate in their impact.

What makes the paintings truly vibrate, though, is the way Catlin handled the primarily orangy-red face paint with which the Indians decorated their copper-colored skin. The face and body makeup seems to sit on the very surface of the painting, giving these works some of the tingling uncertainty of trompe l’oeil. With its furnace-bright presence but matte finish, the red makeup adds still another texture to the surface of these paintings. At the exhibition, there is a wonderful smallish room hung with only six superb portraits, each pulsing with large amounts of face paint. The effect is of an explosion of picture-making power. Your senses are suffused with redness.

Hardly every Catlin portrait is a winner. His standing, full-length figures, where there’s more feathered paraphernalia than a strong face, can be thin. And he frequently went lank with women sitters, rendering their facial features with crude, blubbery strokes. Catlin can be plain inept. No doubt thinking of himself as a Byronic hero (a self-portrait at age twenty-eight makes this clear), Catlin became a better artist depending on the degree of striving and mental life he faced in his individual sitter. Many of the finest portraits are of chiefs and braves. He in every case knew exactly why his sitter was distinguished, and he counted some as friends.

Catlin’s qualities as an artist are not, however, the point of the Smithsonian exhibition. The show’s point is the museum’s desire to air the majority of its Catlin holdings, a body of paintings described as a “crown jewel” of its collection. It is also the core of the artist’s work. There are but a handful of his pictures in other museums or private collections, while those in the National Gallery in Washington, which are known as the “second collection” of his Indian pictures, exhibit few of the qualities that make Catlin the original painter that he is. In the process of presenting some four hundred works, the Smithsonian has provided a rare taste of how the artist and his nineteenth-century contemporaries occasionally took in art. On the museum’s first floor, the pictures (and a number of the Indian artifacts that the artist collected) come fast and furious —though the galleries are broken up by a multi-screened video of life on the Plains as Catlin might have encountered it in the 1830s, with the sounds of rainstorms, thunder, fires, and prairie dogs accompanying us, not unpleasantly, as we take in the work.

But then on the Renwick’s second floor the full nineteenth-century treatment awaits when we walk into a huge room, with a forty-foot-high ceiling, containing over two hundred Catlins, along with a teepee of recent vintage. Seeing this barrage of paintings is momentarily rousing, but it is no way to look at works of substance, as Catlin’s often are. Even if a viewer happened to bring binoculars, the pictures, with their beautiful brushwork, odd color harmonies, and delicate passages recreating bead, feather, or quillwork ornamentation, could hardly be seen at their best. A similar hanging of paintings going right to the ceiling greets the viewer even before entering the show proper, on the first floor. Catlin’s art is too good to be used as wallpaper, which is the effect of this admittedly well-intentioned hanging.

The show’s catalog dampens the excitement of the art still further. From the contributors we hear as much about Catlin’s “complexity”—specifically, about his patronizing, “Euro-American” attitudes toward Indians and his proclivity for salesmanship— as his art. His pictures are admired, but they come across as somehow no more than an equal partner with his character and behavior. Brian W. Dippie spells it out when he says that Catlin was “both quixotic and calculating, a fact that has always qualified appreciation for his achievement.” The man’s “showmanship,” we read on the same page, “has long been pitted against his artistry, the one seen as compromising the other, a view shared by critics, past and present.” What the essays deliver is, cumulatively, a sense that Catlin long exercised a double standard and that his motives were always questionable. His commentators see a man who set himself up as the chief defender of the dying Indian nations yet relentlessly manhandled their spirit in business enterprises.

It is easy, in reading about Catlin in the catalog essays here, to forget that he even was an artist. Already before he made the last of his early trips west, in 1837, he was thinking primarily of how he was going to keep his pictures together, how he was going to get people to know about them, and how he could get the government to purchase them. Although he continued to paint after this time—some wonderful oils of bears, from the 1840s, are standouts at the show—painting for him appears to have been thereafter a lesser activity, and one that always revolved in some way around the promise of his original collection of pictures.

In all the years after the 1830s, Catlin could as accurately be called an anthropologist, ethnologist, showman, curator, author, publicist, lecturer, or inventor as a painter. He put considerable energy, to begin with, into attending to and annotating the huge number of paintings he made on his early trips, along with handling the many Indian artifacts he collected on those travels. There were clothes, jewelry, headdresses, buffalo hides, musical instruments, sports equipment, weapons, tools, and a teepee, to start with. When he arrived in London with all of this in 1839, along with two bears, his various belongings weighed eight tons. Initially, Catlin hoped to make money from displaying his paintings, as a group, along with the artifacts, in New York or other American cities. He hoped that the United States government would eventually purchase what he called his “Indian Gallery” for the benefit of the nation. For years he put serious effort into trying to get well-placed people in Washington and elsewhere to help in this quest.

Catlin’s taking his collection (and his family) to London in 1839 was largely motivated by a selling strategy. He expected he’d do better there, and for a while he did. He set up his pictures and objects in an exhibition hall in Piccadilly. He lectured on the subject, appeared in Indian dress himself, and staged tableaux vivants. When various small groups of Ojibwa and Iowa Indians found their way to Europe, they were incorporated in what Catlin might have called educational entertainments, which now included Indian dancing. Always having to drum up paying events in order to meet the huge expenses he incurred simply for meeting the rent for his gallery/museum/sideshow, Catlin wound up doing “Wild West” routines in Vauxhall Gardens. He and his company performed for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and were seen at one point by Dickens, who found Indian dancing “miserable” and “dreary.” In France, Catlin received a commission from King Louis Philippe for Indian pictures, and he met, and his work was admired by, Delacroix, Sand, and Baudelaire.

Meanwhile, Catlin kept lobbying Washington for purchasers, and kept up pressure on English collectors, though without luck. His mounting expenses, lavish spending, constantly poor investing, and ill luck in side jobs, including one in which, in the wake of the California gold rush, he lectured on the benefits of emigration to the US, eventually landed him, in 1852, in debtor’s prison in London. By this juncture his wife had died (of pneumonia), his son was dead (of typhoid), and a good many of the Ojibwa and Iowa who had joined up with him in London or Paris had also succumbed to illness. At this point it was arranged for his three daughters, his remaining children, to return to family in the States, and by chance Catlin’s Indian pictures were finally sold, relieving the artist of his debt. They were purchased by a Philadelphia industrialist and art collector, who was not overwhelmed by them. He deposited them in the bowels of his steel factory where they rotted, subject to vermin, fire, and water, for decades. These are the very pictures which eventually became the property of the Smithsonian and which, in fine shape despite their history, form the bulk of the present exhibition.

In the twenty years that remained of his life, Catlin, now deaf and penniless, worked to recreate the excitement and valor of his earlier years. He made three trips to South America and touched down in British Columbia and California, too, again painting local Indians, collecting information about them, and writing up his journeys. He must have approached these experiences with at least some of his characteristic impulsiveness and gusto. But a clear sense of these years doesn’t emerge from descriptions in the catalog or from the Smithsonian show. Most of his later paintings are from Catlin’s “cartoon collection,” as he called it (these are the works principally in the National Gallery), and they’re slight. They are filled-in line drawings, mostly of Indians seen from a distance, often dancing, and they quickly become monotonous. Yet Catlin’s later plain ink drawings on paper are as stylish as his early work, and at least one later painting, Entrance to a Lagoon, Shore of the Amazon, intriguingly dated 1854/69, makes you want to see a true record of his art from these years. This almost entirely dark green image, with touches of red, shows that Catlin remained a wild card, a painter who, out of some secret recipe, brought together academic skills with a folk artist’s audacity.

By 1860, in any event, Catlin was living as a recluse in Brussels. When he finally returned to the States ten years later, he came to live, with some irony, as a guest of the fledgling Smithsonian —in the top floor of the Renwick, in fact, where he was provided with a studio. When he died two years later, he still had no idea whether any of his pictures would ever enter the government’s collection. In looking at America’s Indian tribes, Catlin saw an increasingly trapped entity, and his own life had turned into a story of entrapment. Determined to make of his pictures a unified and properly enshrined bundle, he was as fragile, resourceless, and helpless in dealing with the larger world as were the peoples who were his subject.

What is chiefly reprehensible about Catlin, his commentators appear to say, is that he was always, in Christopher Mulvey’s words, “exploiting Indian extinction.” Despite Catlin’s pleas, in his writing, for white men to see in Indian life a valid alter-native model of gravity and liberty, his own actions in dealing with Indians were constantly marked by the need to turn a “profit.” Research shows him to have been a novelty-chasing businessman (if never a brilliant one) even before his encounter with the Indians. And throughout the catalog’s articles we’re meant to be brought up short by the man’s blithe insensitivity, as in the story of how he could happily wound a buffalo, make sketches of the dying creature, and then, his artwork done, “finish” the job with a bullet through the animal’s head. When, to take another example, his three daughters were sent back to America after he was released from debtor’s prison, we read that he “abandoned” them (not that, given his talent for improvident behavior, he made the rational move).

The accounts of Catlin in the catalog, especially those by Dippie and Mulvey, and the reserved appreciation by W. Richard West, a Cheyenne and director of the National Museum of the American Indian, are all, it should be said, carefully reasoned and good to have. Catlin’s art has always demanded that it be read in social and political ways, too, and the values of his era are not ours. Getting the details of an artist’s life adds to our experience of his or her creations whether we believe them to be germane or not. An artist’s personal, helpless vanity, say, or sexual profligacy, or racial fears become a part of the work’s texture— yet not always in the purely “compromising” ways a moralist would want. Reading about Catlin’s social shortcomings helped me, at least, to understand why his art has aged so little.

If Catlin hadn’t been a born showman, for example, or a man who took great pleasure in hunting, he might not have had the physical courage, the temerity, or the gift for spontaneously working a room, as it were, that enabled him to confront so many initially suspicious—and sometimes deeply unfriendly and dangerous—Indian chieftains and braves and to make them, in time, willing partners in his pictures. Besides, studying the lives of artists strongly suggests that the person whom the writers of the present catalog seem to be looking for, an ethically blameless soul who never heard the word “profit” (or glory), wouldn’t in all likelihood have made the lively, luscious, and mysterious paintings Catlin did. He would have made Karl Bodmer’s informative watercolors.

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