- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

Painter George Catlin, the "Audubon of American Indians," did for Indians what his contemporary John James Audubon accomplished for birds. A lawyer-turned-painter (1796-1872) in the 1820s, he determined to record the dying culture of American Indians. Although he wasn't a trained artist, his was an obsessive quest of triumph and tragedy.

The Smithsonian's American Art Museum recently pulled out what it calls "a crown jewel of our collection," the nearly complete set of the artist's first "Indian Gallery" of the 1830s.

The exhibit "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" at the museum's Renwick Gallery is the first comprehensive survey in years to show the work in depth. The artist collected such artifacts as snowshoes, lacrosse sticks, chiefs' shirts, cradles, mittens and pipes from Plains Indian country, and they do much to enliven the exhibit.

Painted just before the advent of cameras and when tribes were beginning to face the Indian Removal Act and its terrors, the "Indian Gallery" portrays them just before their customs and cultures died. The law forced Indians to resettle west of the Mississippi and spurred Catlin westward in 1830.

"If my life is spared, nothing shall stop me short of visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America," he wrote passionately.

The Renwick exhibits the more than 400 objects of the show on two floors and recently extended the viewing date through Jan. 20. The gallery hung the paintings "salon style," one above the other, as did the artist when he showed them.

Catlin viewed Indians as the heroic "noble savage" of the romantic French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The American's portraits of confrontational, dignified, commanding and silent Indians became the stereotype thereafter.

In 1832, Catlin boarded the steamboat Yellowstone for the 2,200-mile trip up the Missouri River to see tribes near the Canadian border. He believed those tribes were the "most pure," and they interested him the most. He visited 18 tribes, including the Pawnee, Omaha and Ponca in the south and Mandan, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine and Blackfeet to the north. Many of his portraits from this trip are in the Renwick show.

The painter traveled so fast, often by horseback, that he sometimes painted three portraits a day. He fell in love with the buffalo-hunting Plains Indian horsemen.

It also was on this trip that Catlin came to understand how essential buffalo were to the Plains Indians for food, shelter, clothing and goods to trade. He accurately predicted that buffalo eventually would be wiped out. He was almost correct. About 60 million buffalo were then estimated to cover the Great Plains, but only about 1,000 remained by 1889.

The painter sacrificed everything to his calling.

His introduction to Indians came early. "It is part of the Catlin lore and the belief of Catlin exhibit curator George Gurney that as a young girl, Catlin's mother and others were captured by Indians [near his Wilkes-Barre, Pa., childhood home.] They were unharmed and released shortly afterwards," according to Laura Baptiste, public relations officer at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

In the early 1820s, he saw an Indian delegation visit Philadelphia, where he was painting miniatures. (His training in miniatures constituted his only art training.) He was so taken with their "classic beauty" that he decided to make them his life's work.

Catlin hitched rides with fur traders, on steamboats and with Army troops to explore the West as far as the Mississippi. The painter only returned home to his wife and four children to make money from exhibitions and to stage Indian war dances. He created the first "Wild West" show and found, early on, that he had to offer entertainment as well as art a position many U.S. museums find themselves in today.

By the late 1830s and 1840s, Catlin began displaying his "Indian Gallery" in eastern cities of the United States and Europe. He determined to never break up the collection. If an admirer wanted to buy a painting, the artist made a copy. This determination cost him ownership of the "gallery" when he went bankrupt in 1852 in Europe.

Catlin for years lobbied the U.S. government for support during his career, but Congress refused to buy the "Indian Gallery" intact, as he wished. The painter sailed for England in 1839 hoping to generate money from exhibitions. He also fantasized that a wealthy aristocrat would buy the group.

Joseph Harrison, a Philadelphia steamroller manufacturer, paid the artist's debts and bought the complete "Indian Gallery" the year the artist went bankrupt.

"Mr. Harrison stored them in the basement of his factory, which probably didn't do them much good," says Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

In 1870, tired out, bankrupt and a widower, Catlin returned to the United States, but he didn't give up. He painted copies of the originals, which he never saw after the Harrison purchase, and the Renwick displays many in the Grand Salon. He died in 1872, just seven years before Harrison's widow donated the collection to the Smithsonian,.

The exhibit begins with the miniature portrait of Catlin's wife and a rather awkward attempt at depicting another female. He also painted "Niagara Falls." Works by other Indian painters also are displayed, as is Catlin's portrait of his mentor, "General William Clark" of Lewis and Clark fame, then serving as superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis.

Clark showed the painter his Indian museum, introduced him to staff at the American Fur Trading Co. and took him on trips among the Indians. It's obvious that Catlin, with his awkward painting style, was just learning then. The Renwick has mounted an exemplary map showing all five of the artist's trips during the 1830s.

Many of the Indians had become more dependent on fur traders and the frontier settlers, as shown in their portraits with peace medals and trade items. The artist painted many landscapes during his travels, as well, and many almost jump out at visitors to the Renwick exhibit.

Catlin probably realized that he wasn't a great painter. Trained as a miniature portraitist, he painted the head first and only sketched in the body afterward. His anatomy left much to be desired. The reds are overbearing. He painted an Indian woman with her baby in a cradle much as previous artists had painted Madonnas and children, but he did catch the strength of these Indian warriors, and they are unforgettable.

The exhibit is a special experience; don't miss it.


WHAT: "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery"

WHERE: Smithsonian's American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 20

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2800

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