George Catlin: Artist as Record Keeper For His Era

Posted on May 17, 2011


All artists in the various media from stone to electronic imaging capture their times.  But it is the artists who have committed themselves to making a more comprehensive record with goals in mind that capture my imagination.  It is art in service to anthropology and sociology and many of their sister disciplines as well as a visual record of that part of the picture of his/her universe.

George Catlin was one such artist.  He fully recognized the import of capturing images of a people, their daily lives and their lands before they vanished.  The bulk of his body of work resides at the Smithsonian in Washington.  Here follows excerpts from an exhibition of his work in 2003.

…[O]ne of the most important collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [is] George Catlin’s original Indian Gallery. Determined to record the “manners and customs” of Native Americans, Catlin, a lawyer turned painter, traveled thousands of miles from 1830 to 1836 following the trail of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Catlin visited 50 tribes living west of the Mississippi River from present day North Dakota to Oklahoma.

Catlin also captured the scenery and especially that which was heavily impacted by Indian civilization:

In this next view, the curator of the Catlin collection brings the fact that Catlin was more than aware of this history of his art and it’s import.

Catlin was also a promoter and traveled with exhibitions of his works which  he himself arranged.  He made it to Paris where is works were not only exhibited at the Louvre but also in the Paris Salon during his visit.  Below a more refined version of some of his scenes produced on commission by the King of France.

If America won’t sit still to read history then we are fortunate in having the works of this and other fine artists from which television bound intellects can expand their horizons.   View the other illustrations and comments from the catalog to the 2003 exhibition here.

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