American Artist, Author & Traveler George Catlin


Compiled by Victoria Chick



George Catlin was a unique painter for several reasons. He not only painted portraits almost exclusively his entire life, but particularly portraits of American Indians. Catlin was impressed with the dignity of individual Indians and, through the Indian portraits and some paintings depicting tribal life and hunting practices, preserved a record of Native American personalities and customs. Catlin viewed indigenous Americans as specific representatives of their tribes through careful observation and recording of clothing, decoration, face paint, and items such as weapons they might carry.


Although they were representatives, Catlin also saw each sitter as an individual and strove to accurately depict individual characteristics and phonetically record their names.

The study of George Catlin, the artist, is also a deep dive into the westward expansion of America and a fascinating study of his artist’s obsession.

Catlin met George William Clark, the Territorial Governor of Missouri, soon after Catlin finished art school. Catlin painted Clark’s portrait, and Clark invited him to go on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River in 1830 to meet Indian tribes who controlled that territory. It was a watershed trip for Catlin. While Governor Clark joined Merriweather Lewis on the discovery journey from 1834-36 up the Missouri River from St. Louis and across the mountains to eventually reach the Pacific Ocean, Catlin took five trips back up the Mississippi visiting 50 different tribes and painting portraits, usually of tribal chiefs, as he went. He used St. Louis as his base.

In 1838, He traveled up the Missouri River visiting Indian tribes and painting portraits of Indians along the 1900 miles to what is now the border of North Dakota and Montana. The trading post there attracted many tribes, and he stayed several weeks in the area painting portraits representing 18 tribes. Shorter painting trips later, along the Arkansas, Red, and the Mississippi River south of St. Louis and overland travel south to Florida and north to the Great Lakes brought his accumulated finished Indian portraits to more than five hundred. It has been said he collected artifacts along his travels and amassed a large collection in his home which he called his Indian Gallery.

In 1838, he organized his paintings, along with some of the items from his Indian Gallery and began giving public lectures about the Indians he had visited. He traveled with his paintings to Cincinnati, New York, and Pittsburgh, hanging his paintings side by side in rows as was done in the French Salon. The lack of large crowds to his lectures and the rejection by Congress to purchase his paintings were great disappointments. Catlin wanted to have his life’s work preserved intact and tried many times to get Congress to buy the collection but was not successful.


He took his collection to Europe in 1839 with the idea of touring the capital cities. Catlin was a showman and entrepreneur and met with early success as crowds of people were curious to see and hear about the exotic American Indians. His paintings were praised by the critic Baudelaire who wrote, ”He has brought back alive the proud and free characters of these chiefs, both their nobility and manliness.” But the success of the European Tour was short-lived, and he moved to various countries in Europe as his finances dwindled. His wife and one of his three sons died in Europe.

In 1852, Catlin was back in America, in debt, and forced to sell the Indian gallery, which had grown to 607 paintings, to Joseph Harrison, an industrialist, who stored them in a factory in Philadelphia. One might expect that after losing 20 years of work to which he had an emotional attachment, and after having his paintings rejected numerous times by Congress, and now in storage where no one could see them, Catlin would feel defeated. That appears not to have been the case. For the next twenty years, Catlin spent his time re-creating his collection. He was able to complete 400 of the original Indian portraits by using outlines he drew of the works from the 1830s. These are known as the “cartoon collection.”

He always wrote. ”Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians” in two volumes, with 300 engravings, had been published in 1841. Three years later, he published 25 engravings titled, “Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio” and in 1848, “Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe”.

From 1852 to 1857 he traveled to Central, South America, and much of the West Coast of North America writing “Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the American West Coast and the Andes” (1868), and “My Life Among the Indians” (1909). Paintings of his South American Indians were published.

In 1872, he came to Washington D.C. at the invitation of Joseph Henry, who was the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Until his death later that same year, Catlin painted in a studio at the Smithsonian’s original building, the “Castle”. In 1879, Harrison’s widow donated Catlin’s original Indian Gallery of over 500 portraits and related artifacts to the Smithsonian. Catlin would have been happy. His life’s work was still together and, even though Congress never specifically purchased it, it was displayed in Washington D.C. for all to see in perpetuity and cared for partly through Congressional appropriations. His obsession became a reality.

Victoria Chick is a contemporary figurative artist and early 19th/20th century print collector based in Silver City, New Mexico. Visit:

Victoria appears on Big Blend Radio every 3rd Saturday. Follow the podcast:  


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