May 13, 2013
George Catlin has been called the “first artist of the West,” even though he was neither the first to paint Indians nor to work west of the Mississippi. He created close to 600 portraits — images of individual chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws, and children of more than thirty tribes of the northern plains. After a failed start in Philadelphia as a portrait painter of miniatures, he became convinced that his destiny lay in seizing the images of Native Americans — on the verge of extinction by genocide (his word). In 1839, Catlin began showing “live” Indians, troupes of Iowa and Ojibbwa. In the process, he changed from artist to showman and from advocate to exploiter of his performers. Tragedy afflicted both Catlin and his Indians. The artist endured an endless series of disasters, including a stay in debtor’s prison and the seizure of all his works.