America’s westward expansion rapidly transformed one of the great wild areas of our planet. Immense herds of bison were almost completely extirpated, vast swaths of prairie put under plow, and once wild mountain ranges subjected to mining and cattle grazing. The way of life for America’s first inhabitants, the American “Indians”, quickly changed forever.
This was deeply disturbing to George Catlin; a man who had the vision, the courage, and the artistic ability to document the Native American way of life before it was too late. Recognizing that disaster was imminent, Catlin traveled west five times in the 1830s just after the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. His mission was to paint American Indians and their way of life to “rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs”.
Catlin, the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their own territories, admired these people and considered them an example of the Enlightenment ideal of “natural man” living in harmony with nature. More than 500 paintings were produced; many of which provide the only documentation of Native American customs and culture.
Catlin’s paintings are quite famous today, and are recognized as a real cultural treasure. However, during his lifetime, he received little support for his efforts. He lobbied the U.S. government for patronage funding many times, but was turned down. His paintings were well received in Europe, but he found that audiences were more interested in sensationalism, and he resorted to presenting real Indians acting out war dances to help ends meet in his travels. Even with these efforts, he went bankrupt in 1852.
Fortunately, Catlin’s paintings survived to the present day through the philanthropy of a Philadelphia industrialist who paid Catlin’s debts to acquire the paintings and then donated them to the Smithsonian Institute. Learn more about Catlin and see his paintings.
Catlin’s paintings depict Native Americans in such detail that much can be learned of their customs, art and clothing from his meticulously detailed works. However, besides documenting Native American people, there is also great value in what can be learned about the environment prior to European settlement of the West. The vast landscapes featured in the paintings often depict, for instance, vegetation and wildlife as it once existed. Some feature Indians setting fire to the prairie, hunting bison, and utilizing resources in what could be described as “sustainable” in today’s lingo.