George Catlin

A Native Artist - Misha Dubuc

Who is George Catlin?

George Catlin was born on July 26, 1796, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. During a time when the United States was pushing itself westward, Catlin became very interested with the open frontier. He was also very intrigued with Native American culture, as he would sometimes go out and search for artifacts. He even befriended a Native American boy; this may have helped Catlin form a deeper appreciation towards the people themselves, as opposed to the hostile nature of his society. He briefly studied law, but his true passions burst forth when he started his painting career. One specific event that left a deep impression on him was a delegation of Native Americans marching through Pennsylvania; he was amazed by just how sophisticated and “noble” they seemed. He traveled extensively between the Great Lakes and Florida to capture portraits of this “dying race”, and even went to Europe to criticize American imperialism. However, he actually did very little to actively protect the Native Americans from expansionism, and eventually moved to England because of it. Despite his inabilities, his artwork is still preserved today in order to showcase the cultural significance of the Native Americans. Catlin died on December 23, 1872.

Contribution to the Art World

Catlin was never formally trained as a painter. However, he was one of the first artists to portray Native American tribes so extensively. He also deviated greatly from most other artists at the time. Most artists would have agreed with the stereotypical notion that Native Americans are wild, uncivilized beasts that needed to be tamed. Catlin, however, wanted to shed a different light; he wanted to preserve their intricate cultures, and help to show just how valuable Native Americans are.

Signature Works

American Nationalism

Again, George Catlin was quite the counter-cultural figure. Partly due to strained relations from the War of 1812 and general expansion, American society deemed the natives as beasts who were too wild and unruly. Catlin set out to show the organized, and even sensitive, side of Native American tribes. One might even call him the "Humans of New York" for Native Americans. Unfortunately, while his work did get some limited attention, it was not enough to prevent American expansionism and the gradual decimation of the Native American population.