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George Catlin (American, 1796-1872)


Also known as:  Caitlin, George

Birth Place: Wilkes-Barre (Luzerne county, Pennsylvania, United States)

George Catlin was born in 1796 and died in 1872. He was an American painter who specialized in making images of Native Americans, and he traveled to the West five times during the 1830s. He is the first person to make images of Plains Indians when they were in their territory.

Catlin was born in Pennsylvania, and he grew up hearing stories of Native Americans from his mother. He was taken by them when he first saw them in Philadelphia, and he began to become interested in making them part of his art.

Catlin had a brief career as a lawyer. Then, he turned his attention to making images of the Native Americans, in large part inspired by the relics from the Lewis and Clark Expedition that he saw. This motivated him to travel out west and see the Native Americans up close.

In 1830, Catlin accompanied General William Clark on a journey to see the Native Americans. As the result of this and later trips, he created over 300 paintings of Native Americans in the regions that he visited. His trips occurred between 1830 and 1836.

When he came back to Philadelphia in 1838, he began to put together an exhibition of his paintings. He traveled to Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and New York, hanging his paintings as if viewers were in a salon. Catlin soon took his work to Europe, displaying it in London, Brussels, and Paris, as early as 1839. Charles Baudelaire was very complimentary about Catlin's ability to capture the nobility of the Native Americans after all the decimation that they had endured as a people.

Catlin had personal debts, and he was forced to sell his paintings to Joseph Harrison. There were 607 paintings in the Indian Gallery, and Harrison stored the paintings in Philadelphia for security. For the last 20 years of his life, Catlin tried to recreate these paintings, and ended up painting 400 of them again.

In 1872, Catlin went to Washington, DC. He was invited to work in a studio at the Smithsonian. He died later that year in Jersey City, and his wife donated all the Indian Gallery paintings that Catlin had made to the Smithsonian. There were over 500 works in this collection.

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