The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pectoral illustrations, are themes worthy of the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian.
–George Catlin (1841)
On March 30, the Greenslade Special Collections and Archives in Olin Library opened its newest exhibition, George Catlin: Scenes and Fantasies of the Western Frontier, a majestic and prolific body of work from the 1830s and 40s that recalls a culture and natural beauty nearly erased by westward expansion. Some of Catlin’s notable works include, “Catching the Wild Horse,” “Buffalo Hunt, Chase” and “Buffalo Hunt. White Wolves Attacking A Buffalo Bull.” These and other paintings on display exhibit certain impressionistic qualities using short brush strokes that departed from the higher scene of realism popular in the 1830s. While critics such as Henry R. Schoolcraft criticized Catlin for his lack of technical skill, others praised Catlin for his observational eye, capturing moving and majestic scenes as they unfolded.
Shayne Wagner ’18, an American studies major and assistant in the archives, curated the exhibition.
Catlin’s oil paintings capture the culture of Native American tribes with a romantic appreciation. He often describes in the anthology “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians” (also on display) the simple glory of native life and how surprisingly similar Native Americans are to “civilized” man.
Catlin’s paintings juxtapose the pastoral and the vicious, exhibiting the power of the buffalo with the slow, rolling majesty of the prairie hills. Native Americans were powerfully envisioned with depictions of their epic hunts — including the conquering of the mightly buffalo, a gory and lurid behemoth in the plains. Catlin also takes care to include animals and symbols associated with various chiefs.
His paintings were not commercially successful for some years in the United States — Manifest Destiny and anti-Native American sentiments ran high — though his art tours in Europe were successful. However, once Americans began to romanticize frontier life, George Catlin returned to the states, accepting government commissions.
“I was most excited for the learning opportunities — regarding the curatorial process, Catlin’s legacy and the United States’ history with westward expansion — that would come from the project,” Wagner said.
Catlin refers to himself as a historian in “Letters and Notes”, with the goal that his paintings would capture the life of every North American tribe before their culture was effaced by the westward expansion of the United States. In the same volume of letters, he described his job as “snatching from haste oblivion what could be saved for the benefit of posterity and perpetuating it, as a fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race.” Catlin participated in Native American culture extensively, living, hunting and celebrating with the tribes. Some historians even believe that Catlin had a second family with a Native American out west.
Portraits were particularly fascinating to Catlin. Despite his seemingly enlightened views on Native Americans, Catlin would bring them east to his exhibits and position them next to his portraits of Native Americas for comparison’s sake, thus creating some of the first “Wild West shows.” Critics have called the validity of Catlin’s artwork into question throughout his career, and even considered some of his paintings to be complete fictions.
Wagner believes that we should view Catlin’s work with a critical eye. “Catlin was a self-proclaimed ally to the Native American communities he painted, but I believe his savior complex blinded him from recognizing the ways he was complicit, or even actively contributing to, the expansionist rhetoric of the time,” Wagner said. She hopes that those visiting the exhibition will “reflect on Catlin’s legacy,” putting it into the context of conversations about American and Native American identity.
The exhibit will be on display until August.