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George Catlin and His Indian Gallery - 2002-12-01

A major exhibit of George Catlin's Indian paintings is on display at the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. George Catlin is considered one of the preeminent painters of nineteenth century Native American life. Although the Smithsonian owns the largest collection of his works, many have been in storage for years. More than four hundred paintings and artifacts can be seen at the exhibit, called "George Catlin and his Indian Gallery."

During the years he traveled the American plains, George Catlin painted Indians hunting buffalo, playing games, and performing ritual ceremonies. But he also painted many portraitsof Native Americans like the Grand Pawnee warrior Buffalo Bull.

"Buffalo Bull we see here facing us holding a bow with arrows. There's a wonderful confidence. He's plucked all his hair out. He's got a little roach [clip] that holds deer hair that's been dyed. It's very distinctive," says Deputy Chief Curator George Gurney. He says the Renwick exhibit displays many George Catlin paintings as they appeared in his traveling shows, lined up side by side from floor to ceiling. Those paintings helped introduce many whites of the time to Native American life, and left Native Americans with a precious record of their changing culture. "They said he was a white medicine man, because he had this gift of being able to create images that seemed real. And this was very different from the type of pictographs the Indians themselves would draw, describing scenes of their own," he says.

"He often has been criticized for perhaps having a formulaic way of doing things, but I think one of the things this exhibition shows is when you put them all together, and you have, say, 50 tribes on one wall, none of them looks alike. There's no stereotypical Indian."

George Catlin was born in the east coast city of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania in 1796. A lawyer turned artist, he discovered his life's work after seeing a delegation of Native Americans in the city of Philadelphia. "He was determined to go out and paint the Indians in their own territory, to collect artifacts, to bring them back and show them as a way of making money but also to record the features of the Indians, because at that time the idea, and he ascribed to it, was that the Indians were going to be pushed out ultimately. And so he wanted to memorialize their looks before they changed totally," says Mr. Gurney.

During the 1830s, George Catlin made five journeys across the Plains, traveling by canoe, boat and horseback. On his longest trip, he followed the trail of explorers Lewis and Clark, more than 3,000 kilometers northwest to the Montana border.

The Renwick exhibit includes a huge video screen that reproduces the sights and sounds of the plains as Catlin might have experienced themfrom soft bird cries and flowing water to raging prairie fires and stampeding buffalo:

George Gurney says Catlin responded to that landscape as both a painter and an explorer. "There's one painting in the galleries that looks like a preliminary kind of underpainting for something that would come later. It's just this vast green landscape. There are no trees and no bushes. But he writes about the landscape, and says I looked for thirty or forty miles across the plains and could not see a tree or bush," he says. "On the other hand, when he got further up the Mississippi he started to find that the stratification of the landscape was very interesting. And he was something of an amateur geologist. When he went to Pipestone, he realized the stone there the Indians quarried for their peace pipes was a very different looking kind of stone. And so he brought it back and the geologists looked at it and said, this is like nothing we've ever seen before, and so it was named 'Catlin.'"

George Catlin developed great respect for the Indians in the course of his travels, and he mourned a way of life that seemed to be vanishing as quickly as he could reproduce it. George Gurney says the artist captured that loss in his double portrait of an Indian chief he met named Pigeon's Egg Head.

"What it shows is a chief coming to Washington in a full bonnet with a headdress of eagle's feathers and a peace pipe, with the Capitol [building] behind him. And in the other half of the painting you see Pigeon's Egg Head as he returned. He's shown in a military uniform with an umbrella and fan and shoes, not moccasins," he says. "And in his back pocket are bottles of alcohol. He's smoking a cigarette. The story is that when he returned to his village he started telling stories about what he saw, and people thought these stories were so fantastic that he had to be making them up. And they felt he really was a wizard, he was evil, and so another brave killed him. In some respects this was a similar kind of treatment Catlin got himself, because he went to Indian country, came home, and many people didn't believe the paintings he had painted."

George Catlin's last years were difficult. When he started including live Indian performances in his traveling shows, he was accused of exploitation. He also faced financial problems so severe that he finally had to sell his paintings to industrialist Joseph Harrison. Catlin tried unsuccessfully to get the Smithsonian to buy the collection before his death in 1872. "His dying words were, 'What will happen to my Indian gallery?' And as it turned out in 1878 the widow of Joseph Harrison said to the next Secretary of the Smithsonian, 'If you have a place to exhibit this, I will give them to you.' So what the government would not pay for, it got as a gift," he says.

The Renwick Gallery has celebrated the Catlin exhibit with special lectures, films, craft demonstrations and performances. Merle Tendoy, who's Shoshone and Chippewa Cree Indian, appeared there recently with the Eagle Whistles, a singing and drumming group from Montana.

The group performed against a backdrop of Catlin paintings, works Merle Tendoy was seeing in the original for the first time. "If it were not for George Catlin many of us tribes would have lost many things. You see the tribal designs, the paints, the proudness of the people that he sketched, and it just inspires me so much."

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery will travel to other American museums in 2004. The paintings will then go on permanent display at the renovated American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.