George Catlin, William Fisk, 1849Credit: User:Noroton / Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art I PD-1923}}

George Catlin – The Artist

Described as 'the great American painter of the West', George Catlin (1796-1872) was appreciative of the people who long inhabited the American landscape, and sought to study, write, paint and understand a culture that was so different, so unlike his own. 

Catlin preferred to paint with a realistic style that depicted members of many indigenous tribes on their own ground, in their own environment. He portrayed the histories and livelihoods of Native American culture on canvas and paper, and honored them with a pictorial presence that few artists have managed to achieve since.

Seldom do events arise in a person's life by accident and so it was with Catlin being drawn to – literally and artistically – explore the Native American culture. From an early age, impressions of native people were already beginning to have personal effect. 

With childhood stories of his mother and grandmother being kidnapped and released in an Iroquois raid, to his own meeting with an Oneida Indian by a river in southern New York at age 9, it was as if Catlin was destined for a life that looked beyond the bounds of dominant white society.

After training as a lawyer, Catlin followed in the footsteps of his father's profession, and set up his own law practice. However, the desire to paint and draw grew stronger within him, and he knew he had to find a meaningful direction for his artistic expression. 

For a time he worked by commission as a portrait painter in New York, yet this occupation was still not enough to fulfill any real sense of purpose in his heart. In 1830, he felt the call to head west, and through his contact with the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, was able to make contact with several Native Indian tribes

Catlin was to spend the next half-a-dozen years painting scenes and portraits of tribes, such as the Sioux, and was fortunate for the opportunities he had to fully experience the natural environments where they lived, their ceremonies, their rituals and varied ways of life.

Such experiences were unknown to most white people of the time. Without traveling to the areas where they lived, or having the openness of mind to acknowledge alternate customs or beliefs, Native American people were treated with disrespect and regarded as savages. 

In contrast to mainstream opinion, Catlin avoided using derogatory words to explain Native American people. He chose words such as 'faithful' and 'hospitable', and aside from his work as an artist, "his greater contribution, undoubtedly, was his signal role in helping to change the perception of Native Americans." (Watson, p. 78)

The White Cloud, Head Chief of the Iowas, George Catlin, 1830-1870Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (Yorck Project)‎

"The Indian . . . stands free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest." – Henry David Thoreau

Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, George Catlin, 1832Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)

The Native American – The Vision

There was one subject in which George Catlin chose to dedicate his life to painting and drawing, and that was of the Native American people. Over the course of many years, he set about creating a collection of Native American portrait paintings, numbering well into their hundreds. For a time, he traveled with his portrait gallery to many American cities, eventually taking it to London and Europe.

One of the most well-known Native American portraits he painted was of the Grand Pawnee warrior, Buffalo Bull (La-dóo-ke-a), which was completed in 1832. Pictured above, this painting in oils features an elaborate depiction of the warrior in full ceremonial dress and paint. Timeless and enduring, the sitter's pose remains strong, defiant and bold in the face of history.

Despite criticism of his works appearing unfinished, Catlin did not seek to paint like a master, nor did he need to. It was not necessary to exactly portray the finer points of each location, each sitter, the complexity of each feather, or strand of hair. 

His images instead have an immediate feeling of fluidity and energy. There is accuracy in his brushwork that depicts the sitter as they are, then in that moment. Standing apart from what his critics saw as being 'primitive' in technique, Catlin trusted what he was seeing, and painted the truth of his own vision

Even as one of the earliest painters of Native American people, Catlin had a deep awareness in his work, that he needed to capture a rich and vibrant culture that was in the throes of ruination. His work was driven by an inner quest – not by outer standards of representation as decreed by western art.

As it is apparent in his depiction of Little Bear (below), time is of the essence in Catlin's work. The outlines are pure and true to form, the contours of the face discerning and clear – here is a Hunkpapa brave of Western Sioux/Lakota caught for time immemorial.

Little Bear, Hunkpapa Brave (detail), George Catlin, 1832Credit: Wikimedia Commons / {{PD-Art}} (PD-old-100)

Indigenous Life – The Culture

In his life, George Catlin painted over 300 portraits of Native American men and women. A further 200 paintings portrayed aspects of their life, their world, their environment. During his stays with different tribes, he witnessed significant Native American ceremonies and rituals, including that of "a Blackfeet Bear Medicine man performing rites over a wounded man." (Taylor, p. 317)

On visiting close to 150 tribes, Catlin observed and carefully documented important facets of Native American life. As an artist and writer, he was committed to journal writing and described the traditions of shield making, the use of symbolic designs, as well as the construction of their weapons, war whistles, pipes, and the garments that they wore.

In his journeying to remote regions of the American continent, George Catlin executed works in situ that powerfully translated the symbols of Native American culture – tipis, war weaponry, horseback riding, ceremonial paint and dress, and the hunting of bear and bison – into honest and raw works of art. 

True strength and courage prevails in the portraits Catlin painted. These works show no sign of hostility or weakness – they are a visual record of one of the most important indigenous cultures on Earth. From the hands of this pioneer artist, the power of the Native American lives on for all to see, to recognize, to finally uphold.