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George Catlin Painted Native American Tribes and Their Cultures During the 1830s


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This is Mary Tillotson. And this is Steve Ember with the Special English program EXPLORATIONS.  Today we present the second part of our program about American artist George Catlin and his paintings of Native Americans.

Last week, we told how George Catlin had begun his working life as a lawyer.  However, he was not happy with this work.  He gave up the law and began painting, first in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and later in New York City.

He became a successful painter.  He painted large and small paintings of people.  But he still felt that he needed to paint something that was important.

George Catlin decided to paint Native Americans after he saw a delegation of Indians on their way to Washington, D.C.

By the year eighteen thirty, he had traveled to Saint Louis, Missouri.  From there he traveled north into lands that few white Americans had ever seen.  It was here that he met the first of the many American Indians he would paint.

George Catlin left many letters telling about his travels.  He wrote that he often traveled alone, with only his horse Charlie.  He carried his painting supplies and enough food for a few days.

He also carried a rifle for hunting.   Between eighteen thirty and eighteen thirty-six, Mr. Catlin made five trips into areas of the West that were considered unexplored Indian country.  He traveled many thousands of kilometers and visited fifty different tribes.

George Catlin painted almost everything he saw.  He painted pictures of unusual land that no white person had ever seen before.  He painted Native American men, women, and children.  He painted their clothes, weapons and villages. He painted the people taking part in religious ceremonies, dances and the hunting of buffalo.  He often painted three pictures in one day.

George Catlin tried to capture in paint the Native American people and their culture.  For example, he painted many pictures of Indians playing a ball game. The game is played with a stick that has a small net at one end.  The net is used to control the ball. This Native American game is still played in the United States and other countries today.  It is called by the name the French gave it – lacrosse.

George Catlin also kept exact records of the people, places and events. Most of his paintings include the names of the people and when they were painted.

George Catlin began to have deep feelings about the people that he painted.  He learned a great deal about them.  He learned that they were honest.  They were intelligent. They represented different cultures that had great value.   George Catlin believed that many of the men he painted were great leaders in their own culture and would have been great leaders in any culture.

He believed the Native American Indians were people of great worth.  He also understood that the Indians could not block or stop the westward movement of white PEOPLE IN AMERICA.  He believed that the American Indian would quickly disappear.

George Catlin put together a collection of his many paintings.  He called the display George Catlin's Indian Gallery.  He began showing the paintings in many cities in the United States.  He also gave long speeches about the Indians he lived with.

He told those who came to his talks that he had never felt afraid while living in Native American villages.  He said no one ever threatened him or stole anything from him.  He tried to make people understand what a great people Native Americans were.  He said huge areas of the country should be left for Native Americans to enjoy life as they always had.

Many people criticized George Catlin.  Some said the people in his pictures did not really look as intelligent and brave as he had painted them.  They said the religious ceremonies he painted were false and that Indians did not really have ball games.  Some critics said George Catlin had invented these people.

The critics made George Catlin angry.  He began to seek white Americans who had traveled in Indian country.  He asked army officers, fur traders and others to sign documents that said the people and events he painted were real.   The critics stopped saying his paintings were a lie.

George Catlin took his collection of paintings to Europe.  He also took many objects made by American Indians.  The George Catlin Indian Gallery was popular in London, England and in Paris, France.  French art experts praised his paintings.   His paintings and speeches were popular. Many people paid money to visit his Indian Gallery, but he did not earn enough money.  He soon had financial problems.

Mr. Catlin returned to the United States.  There were about five hundred paintings in his Indian Gallery.  He offered to sell them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  Several people worked to have the United States government buy the paintings for the Smithsonian.  However, Congress never approved a measure needed for the sale.

George Catlin found a buyer for his Indian Gallery. It was Joseph Harrison, a businessman in Philadelphia. Mr. Harrison bought the paintings but did nothing with them. For many years they were left in a room in his factory.  Mr. Catlin was able to pay most of his debts from the money he earned by selling his paintings.  He began painting again.

His new paintings were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's famous building called The Castle.  For the last year of his life, he worked in a room in that building provided by the museum.  George Catlin died in eighteen seventy-two.  His famous Indian Gallery paintings were still in a room in Mr. Harrison's factory. A fire at the factory almost destroyed them.

In eighteen seventy-nine, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was Spencer Baird.  Mr. Baird knew the historic value of George Catlin's paintings. The owner of the paintings, Joseph Harrison, had died.  So Mr. Baird began to negotiate with Joseph Harrison's wife, Sarah.  He asked her to give the collection to the Smithsonian.

Mrs. Harrison agreed.  She gave George Catlin's famous Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian.  The gift also included many Indian objects that Catlin had collected.  These included maps, books, letters and other papers that told George Catlin's story.

Sarah Harrison's gift was one of the most important ever received by the Smithsonian. For more than one hundred twenty-five years, the public has been able to see George Catlin's paintings.  Art critics, art students and western history experts have studied and examined them.

Today, George Catlin's Indian Gallery is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery.  The paintings have been carefully cleaned for this event.   They look new and fresh, as if they were painted recently.

Art experts have praised and criticized George Catlin's work.  Some say he was not a good artist and could not paint the human body well.  Others say this is because he painted very quickly.  Most critics say his paintings of people's faces are beautiful.  They seem alive and real.

You can see many of George Catlin's paintings on the Internet by using a search engine.   Type the name Renwick Gallery, R-E-N-W-I-C-K.

George Catlin was afraid the American Indian would disappear from the Earth.  That was one of the reasons he painted so many different tribes and different people.  He wanted a record to leave for history.

George Catlin was wrong. The American Indian did not disappear.  But his paintings provide a close look at the people, places and events from a time that is now long gone.

This program was written by Paul Thompson.  It was produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Mary Tillotson.

 And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.


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Source: George Catlin Painted Native American Tribes and Their Cultures During the 1830s
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