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Interview Transcript
Catlin's Quest
Richard Murray

Catlin's Training

Catlin was not trained as a landscape painter—in fact his training was as a portraitist, and as a special kind of portraitist—a miniature painter, one who paints small portraits on ivory that are usually carried in lockets. Very personal kinds of portraits, and he was not trained in any way to paint landscape. His idea in going west was to paint portraits of the American Indians, who were famous at that time, on the frontier—the frontier being the trans-Mississippi frontier up to the upper Missouri Rivers, and the Platte and the Yellowstone. So when he got out there, he began to look for people to paint to populate his Indian gallery, and of course he didn't choose the baker or the baker's wife. He went right to the chief and the chiefs' families and the warriors.

His Journey West

Why would a Philadelphia lawyer abandon his business, pick up his paint tubes, his brushes, his canvases, an easel or two, and head west? We all know about Philadelphia lawyers—why would one want to leave a lucrative position like that and strike out on one's own to unfamiliar territory? Now the territory was unfamiliar in several ways. Geographically, of course; but it was also unfamiliar for Catlin in trying to make a history of American Indians; unfamiliar in portrait painting, and unfamiliar in landscape painting. So why would he do this? Well, he said he wanted to gain fame. Well we all want to gain fame, but he chose this quest and it had many, many consequences for him. The choice of becoming an artist rather than a lawyer, the choice of going West when no one else was going out there to record this—the people, the landscape, the animals.

He put himself in personal danger. He traveled to places where he was unsure of whether he would be an artist or a dead artist. He traveled two thousand miles up the Missouri River. He descended two thousand miles in a canoe with two friends and, he strolled through the prairie, recording the people, the land, and the animals. He had what he considered to be a treasure: an Indian gallery that would be the likes of which no one had seen. He would be revealing to the world the audacious people living out there: their costumes, their land—but he made some terrible mistakes.

In the first place, he's full of contradictions. He didn't know if he wanted to be an ethnologist or an artist, so he tried to be both. Well, ethnology is a science, and art is not. So sometimes today Catlin is criticized for not being accurate in his depictions of costumes. He was an artist. He may have moved things around a little bit. Just like you'd recompose a landscape or recompose a scene of buffalo. That's what artists do. So he could have taken his Indian Gallery and sold it as he had hoped to do to make some money to pay for his trip. But there were no buyers. The government didn't want it.

There was a very different attitude towards American Indians in the government in Washington. They would disagree with Catlin who said, "They love me, so why should I not love them?" These American Indians were viewed as threats; they were something to be moved, something to be gotten rid of, so that the land could be developed, used, and settled. So his Indian gallery, his great hope for his fame, materialized but he didn't gain the kind of fame that he hoped to in America. So what does an artist do who is not an ethnographer and he is not really an artist because people look at these paintings and say, "Why, those aren't art—that's portraiture, that's ethnography."

The Gallery as a Spectacle

With the apparent failure of his gallery, tripping it around cities in the United States, he decided to take it to Europe. He's going to take this show on the road. So he became something of a mixture of an artist and ethnographer and a P.T. Barnum—a fellow who specializes in display rather than science or the tame art of painting portraiture. He had his own family dancing around the stage in front of the gallery of American Indians. He took his gallery to Paris and had his Indians dance in front of Louis Philippe. He took it to London and had the Indians dance in front of Queen Victoria. There was a general sense of showmanship, of great celebration and entertainment and so in one way, his gallery of American Indians, which he had hoped to become the history, the accurate history of people who were disappearing, came full circle to be the popular entertainment that he so despised in the beginning.

Creating the Indian Gallery

Catlin made this choice of making an Indian Gallery, hundreds of paintings—landscapes, portraits, genre scenes of village life, and chose to keep it together rather than exhibit it or individual pieces in art exhibitions. In other words, he didn't participate in the art world where there were galleries and academies and schools and all of the trappings that go along with a professional artist's life. Other people were doing what he was doing in the East, they were painting landscapes, they're painting portraits, they're painting little genre scenes of daily life, but they had no idea of what Catlin was up to. He had it all together. And guess what? They were simply not the same kind of people that were being painted in the East. So in one way he made a choice of painting American Indians. Of keeping them together as his coveted group of friends and that choice cost him a great deal in the exhibition halls in the United States.

Catlin's Painting Technique

A bit about his technique. Many of these paintings are very thinly painted. Particularly the earlier paintings from about 1830 to '32. He must have carried with him stacks of canvases of the same dimension, easily transportable. Some of his paintings are very sketchy and we can actually see his technique in action just by following a painting that is finished in one part and unfinished in another. How in the world he carried all of these around is beyond me, but I have a sneaky feeling that perhaps he didn't carry them all around at the same time.

There is a sketch book that shows some of his sketches for his paintings, his observations on Indian life. Could it be that our Mr. Catlin made sketches and then finished some paintings in his studio? We don't know, but we do know from Catlin himself that he carried his canvases with him. There is a very famous engraving published by Catlin in his notes and letters which shows him at the Mandan village in North Dakota, painting the famous Four Bears, the second chief of the Mandans. Four Bears is standing, holding a staff of office. There are Mandans lolling all around. There is a teepee in the back, and there is Catlin with his easel set up in the middle of the Mandan village, painting. And we see his implements, his canvas, his brushes, his pots of paint. So this was an adventure in portable painting. He did not have a studio to carry around with him—which by the way, was not unusual. Many artists in the East had wagons that they would carry out into the mountains and it was in fact a portable studio. He had none of those kinds of things with him because—why? You carry only what you can use when you're out on the prairie. So he learned a good deal about how to survive and how to make art out where no art was being made and how to do it.

Catlin's View of Himself

As Catlin was picturing the West, the landscape, the people, how did he picture himself? How did he want to be seen? Certainly not as a Philadelphia lawyer, stuck out on the frontier. He didn't want to see himself as an ethnographer either, sitting carefully taking notes on costume. He wanted to see himself as part of the Indian culture. And the portrait of him by William Fiske, painted not on the frontier, but in London in 1849, shows Catlin as he wanted to be seen, his palette in hand, his brush with blood red paint on it, his buckskin outfit with frills and Indian symbols embroidered all over it. His buckskin top open with his Western-style collar flowing out from it. He's bathed in a light falling through the opening of a teepee, and in the background a bustling Blackfoot village. Standing next to Catlin inside the teepee are two Blackfeet Indians looking upon him, taking careful note of him as he took careful note of them.

The Fate of the Indian Gallery

Catlin is full of contradictions. His circumstances are strange. His legacy somehow nearly erased, he's a fellow who wanted to record the frontier, to preserve it in paintings, and in fact, one legacy is that the frontier, the trans-Mississippi/upper Missouri frontier, is preserved only in Catlin's paintings. So his legacy in art is also a legacy in ethnology.

He was not always a good guy. Full of contradictions. He lost his treasured Indian gallery for debts he had built up trying to finance settlement in Texas. Why would he want to have settlement in Texas when he was trying to preserve the frontier? Well, Texas in the 1830s belonged to Mexico, and by the late 1840s, it belonged to the United States. So settling Texas was an entrepreneurial attempt by Catlin to make some money, just as his Indian Gallery was one effort to make money, too. He ran up debt on the Texas project. His Indian Gallery was taken away from him. He tried and tried to sell it to the United States government and no one wanted it. And so it became virtually buried. Catlin died in 1872, penniless. His Indian gallery was in storage in Philadelphia, the place where he began. It was not really discovered until late in the 1870s, when the widow of the creditor found the gallery and offered it to the Smithsonian Institution. This is a strange story of creation, rejection, barnstorming, a gallery hidden, a resurrection, and finally its display at the Smithsonian Institution—not as art, but as ethnology. Only in the 1980s was the collection transferred from the museum of Natural History as ethnological specimens to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


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