Who Is George Catlin

Who is George Catlin? He was both artist and author, capturing the Native American Indian in detail through both painting and writings.

George Catlin was both artist and author. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on July 26, 1796, his early years were spent being molded by two very distinct personalities. His father, an attorney, wanted nothing more than his son to follow in his footsteps, which George did do for a short time, even practicing law for a few years in Pennsylvania after his admission to the bar. His mother though, seems to have been much more influential in her son's life. The Wyoming massacre of 1778 found the young woman as a captive of the Indians. Years later, the young George would enjoy hearing his mother's tales of the wild frontier. This, coupled with his introduction to several Native Americans he came into contact with while studying, and already making a name for himself among other artists and aristocrats, in Philadelphia, set his future in stone.

He was to become by many a person's standard an historian of the Native Americans. Besides his paintings that would go down in history as some of the most exact replications of the "˜true' Americans, he also left a legacy of writings behind. "˜Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians' was published in 1841, some eleven years after he set out for his travels across the great west. This two-book volume depicted exactly what the title entailed, complete with drawings and paintings by the author himself.

Catlin's Letters were a colorful assortment of lore and great west tales of Indian life and his own personal interaction with the Native Americans he came into contact with in his travels. At one point, he was both keeping detailed notes, which would later make it into much of his published writings, and also turning out two paintings a day. Later, it was said, that through his writings to himself, he would redo the original paintings in much more detail than the originals. George Catlin would become known for details that were so exact, the portraits he drew seemed to be just a breath away from life. Beads and ornamentation as finely detailed as the originals. In some of his work though, he seemed to portray nothing more than just a shadow of what many knew him capable of. His notes to himself would come into play in these works, when later he would redo some of these to accompany his published writings, and they would be much more detailed than the first works that he made in the field.



George Catlin became known as a "˜Portrait' artist, but also left behind paintings such as "˜Buffalo Chase - A surround by the Hidatsa', an oil on canvas from 1832-1833, depicting the Indians war with a group of buffalo. "˜Mandan Cemetery' an oil on canvas, 1832, depicting a close up view of skulls from a Mandan cemetery as they were placed in a circle on the edge of the scaffolds where the dead were placed. "˜Ball Play of the Choctaw-Ball Up' an oil on canvas from 1834-1835, shows a whole village in play. "˜Scalp Dance' oil on canvas from 1835-1837, shows a group of Teton Sioux in celebration dance, at the same time giving enemy scalps to the female relatives of their fallen comrades.

Portraits he produced included both men, women, and children from many different tribes included Pawnee, Mandan, Hidatsa, Sioux, Ponca, Arikara, Plains Ojibwa, Plains Cree, Santee, Seminole, Iroquois, and many, many others. With nearly all of his portraits, it was not enough for him to just put the image down onto canvas; he would also gather as much information on his subject as he could. One portrait, "˜Grizzly Bear' from 1831, of a Menominee Indian, portrays the warrior, and we know that this man lead a group of his tribesman to Washington. His note taking was so detailed that we know that his subject for the portrait "˜Mid-day Sun' was a Hidatsa maiden who felt she was not pretty enough to be painted, and only after much coaxing by her family did she finally stand for the painting to be done.

Sometimes, his portraits were not so much for the sake of the individual he was portraying, as for a part of the subject that he wanted to capture. "Torn Belly' a Yankton Sioux, is depicted with locks of hair decorating his shirt. Appearing to be scalps, they were in fact locks of hair from his female relatives, such as his mother and sisters. They represented the members of his tribe. "˜Bod-A-Sin' a Delware chief was portrayed in 1830 to show how this tribe had already started to wear white man's clothes as a natural part of their dress.

Without George Catlin, our nation would have lost a great part of what is or natural history. Before the advent of our modern day portrait taker, the camera, he captured images far better, and in much more detail, than even a camera could have.

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