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)

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…

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