Editor's note: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art provided source material to Resource Library Magazine for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


George Catlin and His Indian Gallery

February 7 through April 18, 2004


More than just the story of a single artist, the special exhibition George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, on view February 7 through April 18, 2004 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., speaks to the encounter of two cultures in North America.

The exhibition features more than 120 works from a crown jewel in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection: the nearly complete surviving set of Catlin's first Indian Gallery, painted in the 1830s. Besides oil paintings, a group of American Indian objects showing the artist as collector will be on view, as will a selection of books Catlin authored. After opening in Kansas City, George Catlin and His Indian Gallery travels to Los Angeles, Houston and New York to celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06. (right: George Catlin (1796-1872), La-dóo-ke-a, Buffalo Bull, a Grand Pawnee Warrior, Pawnee, 1832, oil on canvas, 29 x 24 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.100)

For the Kansas City venue, the Nelson-Atkins gratefully acknowledges the loan of additional material from Smithsonian Institution Libraries; Snyder Collection of Americana, Department of Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri - Kansas City; Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology; and University of Minnesota Libraries.
George Catlin and His Indian Gallery is installed chronologically. It begins with the story of
Catlin's early work in Philadelphia and continues through his epic journeys across the Plains following the Lewis and Clark trail, and, later, to the near-Southwest with military excursions. The final sections of the show detail Catlin's exhibitions, publications and lifelong promotion of his work, as well as his relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. (left: George Catlin (1796-1872), Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief. Blood Tribe, Blackfoot/Kainai, 1832,. oil on canvas, 29 x 24 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.149)

George Catlin (1796-1872), a lawyer turned painter, decided in the 1820s that he would make it his life's work to record the life and culture of American Indians living on the Plains.

In 1830, Catlin visited Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory, superintendent of Indian affairs in St. Louis, and famous co-leader of the 1804 expedition with Meriwether Lewis. Clark became Catlin's mentor, showing him his Indian museum, introducing him to the American Fur Trading Co., and taking him to visit Plains tribes.

In 1832, Catlin made an epic journey that stretched more than 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River. St. Louis became Catlin's base of operations for the five trips he took from 1830 to 1836, eventually visiting 50 tribes. (right: George Catlin (1796-1872), River Bluffs, 1320 Miles Above St. Louis, 1832, oil on canvas, 11-1/4 x 14-1/2 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.399)

Catlin's quest turned into a lifelong obsession that shaped his subsequent travels and the course of his life. In pursuit of his goals, this artist also became an explorer, historian, anthropologist, geologist, collector, journalist, author, lecturer and promoter.

Catlin's dream was to sell his Indian Gallery to the U.S. government so his life's work would be preserved intact. After several failed attempts to persuade various officials, he toured with it in Europe in the 1840s, where he often featured Native Americans dancing, creating the earliest version of what later would become the Wild West show.

Tragically, Catlin was forced to sell the original Indian Gallery in 1852 due to personal debts. He spent the final 20 years of his life trying to re-create his collection.

In 1872, Catlin came to Washington at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian "Castle." A Philadelphia collector's widow donated the original Indian Gallery - more than 500 works - to the Smithsonian in 1879. (left: George Catlin (1796-1872), Wi-jún-jon, Pigeon's Egg Head (The Light) Going To and Returning From Washington, Assiniboine/Nakoda, 1837-1839, oil on canvas, 29 x 24 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66-474)

George Catlin was a complicated and controversial figure in his own century, and remains so today. In his introduction to the companion book to the exhibition, W. Richard West, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, writes: "A native person is challenged... not to feel on some level a profound resentment toward Catlin; his obsession with depicting Indians has an extremely invasive undertone to it .... [But] Catlin placed great value on Indians and their cultures, revealing genuine concern at how they were being systematically stressed or destroyed by non-indians. No artist could so passionately pour himself into his work the way Catlin did without having sincere respect and affection for the subjects of his work."

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Museum gratefully acknowledges generous support from: The Anschutz Foundation, Joan and Bert Berkley, Helen and Peter Bing, Ann and Tom Cousins, Shelby and Frederick Gans, Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, Paula and Peter Lunder, Betty and Whitney MacMillan, Judith and Charles Moore, Barbro and Bernard Osher, Dinah Seiver, Margaret and Terry Stent, Turner Foundation Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, and Smithsonian Institution. The Museum especially thanks colleagues at the National Museum of the American Indian for their close collaboration and assistance throughout the preparation of the exhibition. George Catlin (1796-1872), Shon-ta-yi-ga, Little Wolf. a Famous Warrior, Iowa, 1884, oil on canvas, 29 x 24 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., 1985.66.521)

The Kansas City venue of George Catlin and His Indian Gallery is supported by the Enid and Crosby Kemper Foundation, UMB Bank, n.a., trustee; the Marguerite M. Peet Museum Trust, Marguerite Peet Foster and UMB Bank, n.a., co-trustees; and the Campbell-Calvin Fund and Elizabeth C. Bonner Charitable Trust for special exhibitions.


Editors note: RLM readers may also enjoy;

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Resource Library.

TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians is a 26 minute video produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Northern Light Productions in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Experience Catlin's epic journey up the Missouri River, following parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail; hear about his frontier adventures as told by Catlin himself; and learn about this incredible encounter of two cultures through the voices of Native Americans today.

TFAO does not maintain a lending library of videos or sell videos. Click here for information on how to borrow or purchase copies of VHS videos and DVDs listed in TFAO's Videos -DVD/VHS, an authoritative guide to videos in VHS and DVD format.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History. Individual pages in this catalogue will be amended as TFAO adds content, corrects errors and reorganizes sections for improved readability. Refreshing or reloading pages enables readers to view the latest updates.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.