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Books and Culture

Ryan L. Cole
George Catlin, Artist-Adventurer
A new biography is worthwhile when not bogged down with distractions.
31 January 2014

The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman by Benita Eisler (W. W. Norton & Company, 480 pp., $29.95)

Stu-mick-o-sucks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe (1832) by George Catlin
Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe (1832) by George Catlin

Early last year, Britain’s National Portrait Gallery launched a traveling exhibition of George Catlin’s paintings to glowing reviews. If the American artist could survey this scene from the Great Beyond, he would likely smile. Catlin spent decades on both sides of the Atlantic trying in vain to find a home for his work. After his death, his paintings, scattered throughout the Smithsonian galleries and regularly hung in the White House, became familiar to millions of Americans. His name is much less so. This is unfortunate, because Catlin’s life—a swirl of ambition, adventure, and tragedy—is as fascinating as his portraits of the Indians of the Great Plains are vivid.

Benita Eisler’s biography, The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman, is an exciting prospect. An author with a taste for the masters—she has written biographies of Chopin and Lord Byron—Eisler documents Catlin’s life story in poetic fashion. Unfortunately, she’s also too eager to put Catlin on the couch. Thomas Jefferson once observed that if one were to turn the soul of his protégé James Monroe inside out, there would not be a spot in sight. Eisler has turned Catlin inside out and discovered a number of blemishes, not to mention a previously undisclosed (if dubiously proven) sexual orientation.

Catlin was neither western (as we define it today) by birth nor an artist by training. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and shipped off to Connecticut’s Litchfield Law School at 21, he was groomed for success by his father, Putnam, who, as Eisler has it, projected his own unrealized ambitions on his son. Catlin practiced law indifferently for a time. But, exposed to and enthralled by art in the parlors of Litchfield, he determined, in his own words, to convert his “law library into paint pot and brushes.” Once canvases replaced the courtroom, the self-trained Catlin set out to make a name and a fortune, drifting to and from the cultural centers of the young nation. The author frowns on all this hustling, describing Catlin as “an easy mark for get-rich schemes promising gold and land, forever chasing the all-American chimera of success.” Still, it’s hard not to marvel at his pluck. He cold-called Secretary of War Peter B. Porter looking for a job and thought nothing of writing to the Marquis de Lafayette (whom he did not know) to ask for help promoting his work in France.

Eisler sees much of this as the behavior of a “helpless child” in search of a paternal figure to compensate for his own father’s failures. And a succession of patrons did indeed nudge along Catlin’s career. New York’s Renaissance Man-governor, DeWitt Clinton, sat multiple times for Catlin; one of these portraits, recently restored, hangs in New York’s City Hall. Then, in 1830, William Clark, the famed explorer and federal superintendent of Indian affairs, welcomed Catlin into his St. Louis circle and provided entrée to parts west.

Traveling up and down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and across the frontier, Catlin came in contact with, lived among, and sketched the tribes of the American West at a time when U.S. expansion was about to put an end to their way of life. When he returned east in 1838, Catlin brought with him a collection that was not only visually striking—Eisler argues convincingly that the painter’s technique fully matured during his western travels—but also offered a journalistic glimpse into a civilization alien to many white Americans.

Powerful portrayals of tribal ceremonies, stark portraits of chiefs and warriors— most notably Blood tribe head chief Stu-mick-o-súcks—and fantastic landscapes depicting burning prairies and meandering rivers, combined to create the artist’s traveling “Indian gallery.” This collection earned Catlin acclaim at home and adulation abroad, where he spent years—less as an artist than as a showman exporting a glimpse into America’s mysterious West. But his fame eventually became an albatross, as he tried unsuccessfully to induce Congress, kings, and queens to buy the paintings.

Catlin’s life story is fascinating and sad, and the ultimate fate of his subjects is a depressing and shameful story of its own. Eisler details the plight of the Native Americans and repeatedly indicts the policies that caused it, but she also takes great pains to connect Catlin to that plight. For his time, the artist’s attitudes about the fate of America’s original inhabitants were somewhat progressive—he was one of the first to argue that Western lands be set aside for those displaced by white settlement, and he saw his art as a form of preservation of their vanishing cultures. He candidly linked colonialism with extermination. But Eisler suggests that Catlin, despite his noble rhetoric, tended to “shift moral gears; like the lawyer he had once been.” She finds fault with his enduring admiration of and refusal to denounce Clark, a guilty party in U.S. Indian policy, and with his traveling show, which Eisler equates with “theft on a global scale, akin to grave robbers.”

Further complicating matters is Eisler’s exploration of Catlin’s personal life. Apparently, Catlin delighted in “phallocentric” tribal cultures and made every effort to avoid the drudgery of domestic life with his wife, Clara. In a bit of postmodern identity gymnastics, Eisler claims that Catlin’s “silence about the role played by native women . . . suggests that his fear of the Other—sexual and racial—threatened his peace in Indian country.” But most bizarre of all is her theory that Catlin covertly conducted a passionate affair with a clerk and travel companion named Joseph Chadwick. Letters indicate the two men were indeed close friends, but the author, with little in the way of supporting evidence, assumes that the relationship was sexual. This unconvincing and somewhat irrelevant assertion detracts from an otherwise interesting biography.

What resonates most about The Red Man’s Bones is the portrait of Catlin as all-purpose entrepreneur. He was an author, sending dispatches of his travels back east to the New York Commercial Advertiser and publishing several books of plates and engravings as well as logs of his travels; he was also a self-promoting showman, a contemporary of P.T. Barnum (whom he worked with in Europe), and a precursor of Buffalo Bill Cody. And he was not just our first great western painter, but, clad in buckskins and carrying his paints and canvases across the frontier, America’s first artist-adventurer as well.

Catlin never convinced the U.S. government to acquire his collection. Instead, it wound up in the hands of his creditor, Philadelphia industrialist Joseph Harrison, whose wife eventually donated it to the Smithsonian. Today those portraits are, in Eisler’s words, objects of “immediate recognition.” Americans may not know Catlin’s name, but they certainly know his art, and because of it, his subjects. Readers will find the rest of the story in The Red Man’s Bones, if they don’t mind a few distractions along the way.

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