CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 01. North American Indians

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 22 ¾ x 16 ½ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

PLATE No. 1
GROUP OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS, FROM LIFE

 

By whatever means, at what time soever, and for what end, Men and ferocious Beasts have been placed upon the almost boundless Prairies, and through the rude and Rocky Mountains of America; and for what wise purposes soever the dates and sources of their origin have been sealed in impenetrable mystery; it is a truth incontrovertible, that such were found to be the joint inhabitants of all that important half of the globe; and a truth rendered of tenfold interest at the present time, from the lamentable fact that both are rapidly travelling to extinction before the destructive waves of civilization, which seem destined soon to roll over the remotest parts of the continent.

 OF these joint and original inhabitants, one half at least, of North America, has been already entirely depopulated; and of Man, who falls by poisons and diseases not imbibed by the brute creation, millions have already sunk under dissipation, and disease which have been carried by civilized men over the other half, and thinned their ranks to the numbers which I have estimated in my former work, to which I have alluded in the preamble to this.

Man, in the vast plains and mountains of America, has been found, as in other parts of the world, maintaining his ascendancy over the beasts of the forest, by the aid of his reason and invention which have enabled him to construct his weapons and to employ the means to convert the various animals to his aid and his subsistence in the numerous modes represented in the following pages.

The group in Plate No. 1 is composed of three Portraits from my collection, representing three different tribes of various latitudes and well illustrating a number of the leading characteristics of this interesting part of the human family.

 An Osage Warrior, from a southern latitude, entirely primitive in his habits and dress; his head shaved and ornamented with the graceful crest manufactured from the hair of the deer's tail and horsehair (an uniform custom of the tribe) his robe of the buffalo's hide, with the battles of his life emblazoned on it; his necklace made of the claws of the grizzly bear; his bow and quiver slung upon his back, and his leggings fringed with scalp locks taken as trophies from the heads of enemies slain by him in battle.

An Iroquois (an almost extinguished tribe) from a northern climate, with long hair; with a ring in his nose, and headdress of quills and feathers, according to the mode of his tribe; with his tomahawk in hand and his dress mostly of civilized manufacture, indicating an approach to civilization to which all the remnants of this and several other contiguous tribes have long since attained.

A Pawnee Woman, from an intermediate latitude, in primitive dress made entirely of skins, and in this as well as in the mode of dressing the head and ornamenting the person, a very fair illustration of the general modes and personal appearance of the females who exhibit much less forcibly than the men, the characteristic differences of the various tribes.

 Two million or more of these reasoning beings are still existing in North America, strangely mixed up with and holding dominion over the beasts of the forest, upon the flesh of which their chiefly subsist, obtaining it by the various exciting means of appropriation to which I am now to introduce the reader in the following illustrations.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins “Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the “Indian Gallery”, Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com

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