George Catlin lived a life out of the early American history books that was very closely intertwined with Native American Indians. He had his first friendly encounter with an Oneida Indian that he bumped into when he was exploring the woods in southern New York. His own mother was kidnapped by Iroquois when she was a child and released shortly after unharmed. Catlin grew up in a family of 14 children and was urged by his father to study law. Catlin found he preferred drawing the Judges and law clerks to practicing law and after a few years moved to Philadelphia to start his new career as an artist. He had no formal artistic training.
Catlin received commissions to paint the country’s celebrities including Sam Houston and Dolly Madison. He realized after he saw a delegation of Indians in route to Washington how he wanted to shape his career. Catlin was concerned that the Indian’s way of life was quickly vanishing thanks partly to being exposed to smallpox and whiskey – gifts of the white European settlers. He vowed “nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian.”
Catlin spent eight years traveling among the 48 North American tribes. He began his journey in 1830 when he traveled with General William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, up the Mississippi on a peacekeeping mission. He produced more than 500 paintings and collected a substantial group of artifacts.
Catlin returned east in 1838 to put together a show of his work and artifacts that was accompanied by his public lectures. He traveled to major cities to host his “Indian Gallery.” His collection traveled around American and European cities for twelve years. The critics of his time considered Catlin to be an ordinary painter but a larger than life figure. Catlin’s work turned out to be the largest of pre-photographic material of Native Americans.
Catlin really had empathy for the American Indians and painted them as fellow human beings, rather than savages. He felt a sadness (which was unusual for the time) of how they were treated and the realization that their customs and lands were soon to be taken from them. Catlin started a life long quest to sell his collection the U.S. government to have his work preserved intact. This did not happen and he had to sell the collection to an industrialist to pay off his personal debts. Catlin then spent the last 20 years of his life trying to recreate this loss. These new works were drawn from earlier outlines and became know as the “Cartoon Collection.” Seven years after his death, his original collection was donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.