Benita Eisler’s biography of George Catlin, The Red Man’s Bones: George Carlin, Artist & Showman, is fascinating, in-depth and overlong. Fair enough I suppose. The same could perhaps be said of the presentations I give school groups at historical sites. Tough cookies kids! You’re on my time now.
Where was I?
George Catlin (1796-1872) was a 19th century painter who achieved fame for his striking portraits of Native Americans - before they were swept away by western expansion. As an artist, his talent was modest when compared alongside other American masters. Yet, he had a distinctive style and a ringmaster’s flair for drama; all of it driven by an ambition which would never be satisfied.
Eisler chronicles his saga in her sprawling biography, following Catlin from the wild Dakotas to the courts of Europe. Catlin is depicted as a multi-faceted figure; sometimes an eloquent advocate for indigenous rights, sometimes an inscrutable huckster, always a dreamer. For my part, I’ve always been fascinated by Catlin’s Indian portraits ever since I first saw them in my family library’s Time Life book collection - The Old West. Nowadays, I see them in person whenever I venture inside the National Gallery of Art or the National Portrait Gallery. The Red Man’s Bones provides the definitive story-behind-the-canvas.
An indifferent student, Catlin’s family wanted him to pursue the law. Instead he followed a passion for portraiture, bouncing around the eastern seaboard painting commissions for wealthy clients. Ultimately he landed in Washington, DC and met Charles Bird King. The moment would change his life. King had become renowned for painting Native American chiefs visiting the nation’s capital as members of visiting tribal delegations. With an understanding that the continent’s native peoples were destined to vanish, King’s work was greatly admired as a type of living memorialization. Catlin would expand upon this vision by journeying out west to capture Indians in their native environment.
The problem was finding a patron who would support and finance his work. Eventually, he traveled to St. Louis, Missouri and ingratiated himself with William Clark (of Lewis & Clark fame). Serving a dual role as the governor of Missouri territory and commissioner of Indian Affairs, Clark’s friendship represented Catlin’s winning lottery ticket. His paint & easel were immediately put into service as he became Clark’s unofficial artist-in-residence.
Using a string of far-flung military outposts as base camps for adventure, Catlin crisscrossed an untamed landscape, all-the-while painting a tremendous volume of Indian portraits and native scenes. The images were unlike anything the world had ever seen.
He was the first white man to depict the Mandan’s brutal O-kee-pa ceremony of spiritual renewal - a jarring collision of ritual torture and public sex (now suitable for framing!). He painted the imprisoned leadership of the Sauk & Fox tribes, before they were put-to-death following the Black Hawk War. Buffalo hunts, warriors in full regalia, stirring landscapes - Catlin immortalized it all on canvass. Concurrently, he served as his own newspaper correspondent, sending adventure stories back east to be consumed by fascinated readerships. He also amassed a wealth of Indian crafts, curiosities & artifacts.
Once his collection of Native American art & ephemera was large enough, Catlin decided to unveil it in a traveling exhibition that would barnstorm throughout the great cities of America & Europe. He eventually merged his collection with a revolving cast of Native American performers in a ‘Wild West Show’ of his own creation - predating Buffalo Bill by decades.
Unfortunately for Catlin, he was an uncertain businessman, perpetually in debt and doomed to chase an ever-receding horizon. Ultimately, his collection became a weight that he could not offload. The great, unfulfilled wish of his life was to sell his collection to the Untied States government, that it might form the foundation of an American Indian Museum. His unsuccessful pursuits left him broke and penniless by the time of his death - but it was a helluva ride. Ironically, his collection would eventually be purchased and permanently displayed by the U.S. government (namely, in the collections of the The Smithsonian & National Gallery of Art), but it was a posthumous triumph.
Eisler has made a name for herself writing biographies of artists ranging from Byron to Chopin. Although it’s about 100 pages too long, Red Man’s Bones is a creditable chronicle of an unsung American original.
If you’d like to see his paintings in person, perhaps you should take our National Gallery Tour …