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Press Room


Smithsonian American Art Museum Opens "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery"
A Unique Record of 19th-Century American Indian Culture

Contact: Laura Baptiste
Media only: (202) 275-1595

The exhibition "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery," on view Sept. 6 through Jan. 20, 2003, celebrates a crown jewel in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection—the nearly complete surviving set of Catlin's first Indian Gallery painted in the 1830s. It is the most comprehensive display of Catlin's work in over a century and includes artifacts Catlin collected while in Plains Indian country. This exhibition is more than just the story of a single artist; it speaks to the encounter of two cultures in North America.

"Catlin's Indian Gallery is an unparalleled collection of great artistic and historic significance that contributes to understanding America's frontier and the cultures of the Native Americans who lived there," said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's Margaret and Terry Stent Director. "This exhibition conveys Catlin's regard for the rich heritage of the Plains tribes and inspires our admiration for it today."

"George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" is presented under the Honorary Patronage of the President of the United States George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush.

The exhibition features more than 400 objects and is one of the largest ever organized by the museum. It is installed on two floors at the museum's Renwick Gallery. "Catlin in America" begins on the first floor and tells the story of his early work in Philadelphia and his epic journeys across the Plains, following the Lewis and Clark trail. "Catlin in Europe" occupies the Grand Salon on the second floor, and is installed in a way that recalls the Indian Gallery as Catlin displayed it during his tours in Europe. This section includes 230 paintings, archival materials and a canvas tipi 24-feet high.

Visitors to the exhibition will experience the excitement of Catlin's journey up the Missouri River, a buffalo stampede and a prairie fire in the exhibition's "surround video" gallery. Catlin was one of the first artists to paint these phenomena for audiences in eastern America and Europe.

George Catlin (1796–1872), a lawyer turned painter, decided in the 1820s that he would make it his life's work to record the life and culture of American Indians living on the Plains. In 1830, Catlin visited Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory, superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became Catlin's mentor, showing him his Indian museum, introducing him to the American Fur Trading Co., and taking him to visit Plains tribes. In 1832, Catlin made an epic journey that stretched over 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for the five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting 50 tribes.

"Catlin was the first major artist to travel beyond the Mississippi to record what he called the 'manners and customs' of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life," said Deputy Chief Curator George Gurney. "His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830."

Catlin's quest turned into a lifelong obsession that shaped his subsequent travels and the course of his life. In pursuit of his goals, this artist also became an explorer, historian, anthropologist, geologist, collector, journalist, author, lecturer and promoter. Catlin's dream was to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government so that his life's work would be preserved intact. After several failed attempts to persuade various officials, he toured with it in Europe in the 1840s, where he often featured Native Americans dancing, creating the earliest version of what would later become the Wild West show. Tragically, he was forced to sell the original Indian Gallery due to personal debts in 1852. He then spent the last 20 years of his life trying to re-create his collection.

In 1872, Catlin came to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian "Castle." A Philadelphia collector's widow donated the original Indian Gallery—more than 500 works—to the Smithsonian in 1879.

George Catlin was a complicated and controversial figure in his own century and remains so today. In his introduction to the companion book to the exhibition, W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, writes: "A native person is challenged . . . not to feel on some level a profound resentment toward Catlin; his obsession with depicting Indians has an extremely invasive undertone to it. . . . [But] Catlin placed great value on Indians and their cultures, revealing genuine concern at how they were being systematically stressed or destroyed by non-Indians. No artist could so passionately pour himself into his work the way Catlin did without having sincere respect and affection for the subjects of his work."

.The Smithsonian American Art Museum gratefully acknowledges the generous support provided for the exhibition, publication, Web site, multimedia and education programs provided by The Anschutz Foundation, Joan and Bert Berkley, Helen and Peter Bing, Ann and Tom Cousins, Shelby and Frederick Gans, Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, Paula and Peter Lunder, Betty and Whitney MacMillan, Judith and Charles Moore, Barbro and Bernard Osher, Dinah Seiver, Margaret and Terry Stent, Turner Foundation Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Smithsonian Research Resources Program, Smithsonian Special Exhibitions Fund and Smithsonian Women's Committee.

The Museum especially thanks colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian for their close collaboration and assistance throughout the preparation of "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery."

Audio Tour
Visitors to the exhibition can rent an optional audio guide, produced by Antennae Audio. Incorporating music, selections from Catlin's journals, commentary from scholars at the Smithsonian and Native American voices, the 50-minute audio tour gives a compelling in-depth look at Catlin's life and work. The audio tour is $5 for adults and $4 for senior citizens, students, children under the age of 12, Smithsonian Institution members and groups of 10 or more. Smithsonian American Art Museum members can take the audio tour for free.

Education Web Site
"Campfire Stories with George Catlin: An Encounter of Two Cultures" is a richly layered educational Web site that will be available for the 2002–2003 academic year and beyond as a resource for teachers and students that addresses national standards for grades 5–12. The site includes virtual campfire discussions with prominent scholars and American Indian leaders, moderated by naturalist and writer Peter Matthiessen, that incorporate Catlin's journals, commentary from Native Americans, primary source materials and activities for students. Works by Catlin in the museum's collection, including his sketchbook, will be featured on the site. The Web site is available at or through the museum's Web site

Tours of the exhibition, which encourage active participation, are available to augment classroom studies using the Web site. To schedule a tour, receive a teacher packet or for more information about the Web site, call (202) 275-1693.

Public Programs
A schedule of public programs, including lectures, gallery talks, symposia, craft demonstrations, concerts and performances is available in a separate brochure. Call (202) 275-1500 to receive a copy by mail, or visit the museum's online calendar of events at Highlights include a Native American blessing by a traditional bundle keeper at 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 6 and an Open House Sept. 14 – 15. The Open House offers an opportunity to take a tour with George Catlin, played by local actor Chris Janson (10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14, and at noon and 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15) and features performances by the Thunderbird Theater from Haskell Indian Nations University (11 a.m. on Sept. 14 and at 2 p.m. on Sept. 15). The Thunderbird Theater will perform "Songs of Life," a collection of Native American stories that combines traditional arts of dance, song, storytelling and drumming.

"Re-Viewing George Catlin's Indian Gallery" on Saturday, Oct. 5 from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This day-long program will be held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium. Speakers include James Boyles, Philip Deloria, Lisa Strong, Bridget Goodbody, Rayna Green and Kenneth Haltman. A reception and tour of the exhibition immediately follows at the Renwick Gallery. There is a $25 registration fee ($10 for students); pre-registration is required. For information and reservations, call (202) 275-1489.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is co-publishing a book, titled George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, with W.W. Norton & Co. The book includes 120 color plates with extended captions by Joan Troccoli; essays by Brian Dippie, Christopher Mulvey and Therese Heyman; an introduction by W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; and a preface by Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The book retails for $34.95 for softcover and $60 for hardcover; museum members receive a 20 percent discount. The book is available for purchase at the Renwick Gallery store, on the museum's Web site and at bookstores nationwide.

A free color brochure is available in the exhibition.

Television Program
The museum is producing a half-hour documentary with Northern Light Productions that presents the themes of the exhibition and Catlin's remarkable life within the wider context of Westward expansion, and includes on-camera interviews with scholars and members of American Indian tribes that Catlin visited. The television program, titled "Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians," will be syndicated nationally and distributed as an educational video.

To celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, 120 paintings and artifacts from "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery" will travel to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (Feb. 7 – April 18, 2004); the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles (May 9 – Aug. 4, 2004); and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Sept. 19, 2004 – Jan. 2, 2005).

The Smithsonian American Art Museum collection began with gifts of art donated to the federal government in 1829 and has evolved into the world's most important American art holdings with approximately 39,000 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs, folk art and contemporary crafts.

While the renovation of the museum's historic home—the Patent Office Building—continues, American Art offers a full program of exhibitions at its Renwick Gallery (Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W.). For information about Renwick Gallery activities, call (202) 357-2700. Please visit the museum's award-winning Web site at