LONDON – The National Portrait Gallery, London, stages “George Catlin: American Indian Portraits,” an exhibition which includes major loans from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington many of which have not been seen in the UK since the 1840s.
The exhibition will run March 7 through June 23.
George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American artist, writer and showman who documented Native American peoples and their cultures to serve as a record of what he believed to be a passing way of life. What he created is regarded as one of the most important records of indigenous peoples ever made. Catlin was not the only artist to embark on such a project in the nineteenth century, but his record is the most extensive still in existence.
Catlin, who originally studied law and passed the bar, left his legal career behind in 1821 when he moved to Philadelphia. Here Catlin learnt to paint in oil from John Neagle, Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully. He made his first Native American Indian portrait in 1826, a sketch of Seneca chief Red Jacket. Catlin made five trips in the western part of the United States during the 1830s before the Native American peoples of those regions had been subsumed into the legal boundaries of the United States. The “Indian Gallery” comprised the materials and work Catlin produced, during and inspired by the five trips, which included some 500 portraits, pictures and indigenous artifacts. Catlin aimed to meet as many Indian peoples as he could and his total was around 48 different indigenous groups or “nations” by the time the “Indian Gallery” reached its zenith.
Catlin’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to tour the “Indian Gallery” in the Eastern states from 1837-39, but he failed in selling it to the United States government. He then went on to tour the gallery in Europe for the next 10 years including exhibitions held in Great Britain, France and Belgium. Always needing to make financial gains from his endeavors, Catlin used entrepreneurial methods to promote the spectacle of the “Indian Gallery” during its European tour, some of which may seem dubious to a 21st century audience, but at the time were not unusual. The works are displayed closely hung to evoke the sense of spectacle Catlin created during the time of his tour and by doing so demonstrate how Catlin constructed a particular image of Native Americans in the minds of his audience.
“George Catlin: American Indian Portraits” is organized by the National Portrait Gallery, London, in collaboration with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington.
ADDITIONAL IMAGES OF NOTE