There is a very interesting (small, but perfectly formed) exhibition on at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 23 June. It consists of some of the portraits painted by George Catlin of the ‘Indians’ of both the North and the South American continents. (Many thanks to my colleague Robert Drew, who told me about it: I was vaguely aware that ‘our’ George Catlin had illustrated his own books, but had no idea that he was in fact much more famous as a painter than as a writer.)
Catlin (1796-1872) was born and brought up in rural Pennsylvania, and there are anecdotes of his boyhood (mostly of the ‘don’t try this at home’ variety) in two books apparently written for children: Life Amongst the Indians (1861) and Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains and the Andes (1868). (Don’t ask why we are doing them in the wrong order…) He trained as a lawyer, but turned to art, teaching himself to draw from nature. His interest in the Native Americans was sparked in part by seeing some of the artefacts brought back to the east by the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–5.
In a series of trips to the far side of the Mississippi (then ‘Indian Territory’) between 1830 and 1838, Catlin made contact with many different tribes, many of which had not so far had much to do with Europeans. He painted hundreds of portraits of both men and women, and made a superb collection of artefacts of his own, especially ceremonial pipes created from ‘pipestone’ from a Minnesota quarry sacred to several of the Plains Indian tribes. He claimed to have been the first ‘white man’ to have seen the quarry, where he painted a scene of excavations: this claim is now doubted, but the stone itself is called catlinite.
Catlin attempted to make a living from his art, not by selling the portraits but by assembling them, and the pipes, ceremonial costumes and other items in his collection, in a touring ‘Indian Gallery’, which visited major cities in the U.S. In 1839, he came to Europe, exhibiting in London, Paris and Brussels. He covered the walls with his portraits, most of which were squarish in format: each was labelled with a number, which referred to a printed catalogue in which the name (with English translation) and tribe of the sitter was given. In London, he took over the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. This had been originally built in 1812 to house the collection of South Seas artefacts brought back from Captain Cook’s various voyages and assembled by William Bullock, jeweller, antiquarian, naturalist and traveller, whose plan for a utopian community near Cincinnati disastrously seduced Frances Trollope and was later parodied by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewit). Bullock had also (appropriately enough) leased the Egyptian Hall to Giovanni Battista Belzoni for his Egyptian collection, for an exhibition of Napoleonic mementos (including his carriage, captured after Waterloo), and a family of Lapps who rode up and down the hall in a sledge pulled by reindeer. (Sadly, the Hall was demolished in 1905, to make room for flats and offices (plus ça change…).)
The exhibitions drew crowds, and the French intelligentsia especially were enthusiastic in their response – Baudelaire, George Sand, Gautier and de Nerval all wrote approvingly about the noble savages. But Catlin didn’t succeed in raising enough money to secure an income above his expenses, and tried desperately to spice up the exhibition, shipping nine Ojibwe over to London in 1843 to perform dances and ‘scalp’ their ‘enemies’. (Dickens was cynical about this ‘party of Indians squatting and spitting … or dancing their miserable jigs after their own dreary manner’.) Moreover, there was personal tragedy: his wife and one of their four children died in Europe in 1845.
Catlin made repeated efforts to get the American government to take on the collection, believing as he did that his work was important as an accurate record of a culture which was doomed to decline and disappear as the government ignored previous treaties and opened up huge tracts of ‘Indian Territory’ for white settlement. He did not succeed, and in 1852 he had to sell the whole collection to an industrialist, Joseph Harrison, to escape from an increasing burden of debt. He then spent the rest of his life trying to reconstruct the portraits on the basis of his original 1830 outlines, and this ‘Cartoon Collection’ eventually consisted of 400 of the original 607 pictures.
Catlin’s most important book was the two-volume Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, published in 1841. From his letters and journal notes made during the 1830s expeditions, he compiled an account of the different ways of life of the tribes he encountered, and illustrated it with over 300 sketches. Two things made his account unusual. Firstly, because he had also travelled in South America and made contact with many tribes in Mexico and along the Amazon, he was sure that the South American ‘Indians’ were close kin of the northern tribes: he believed, for example, that the ancient Toltecs were a branch of the Snake and Crow Indians who had moved south.
But the most striking feature about all of Catlin’s writing is his sympathy with his subjects. Unlike so many travellers, both contemporary and later, he took the trouble to explore the culture, beliefs and languages of the different tribes, and constantly reiterates his belief – based on more experience than that of many so-called ‘Indian experts’ – that these people were ‘honest and honourable’, and his disgust at how ‘civilised man’ made them ‘victims to whiskey, the small-pox and the bayonet’.
Catlin died in obscurity and relative poverty in 1872. In 1879, Joseph Harrison’s widow bequeathed the Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, which has lent over 50 of the portraits, some pipes and a ceremonial robe to the National Portrait Gallery. Catch this remarkable exhibition if you can!
PS (a year later): Elizabeth Rigby went to see Catlin’s show: ‘it is a disgusting sight to see savages performing antics for display, which are only defensible in their own woods, as being done in earnest; and what fools they must think us for caring to see them!’ Not sure about the first half of the sentiment, but the second is surely correct!