A welcome new evaluation of a significant American artist honed by the Wild West spirit and hucksterism of the age.
Biographer of Byron, Chopin, George Sand and others (Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, 2007, etc.), Eisler now turns her considerable research talents to fleshing out the life and work of Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin (1796–1892), whose sympathetic portraits of the Native Americans he sought out and lived among render an incalculable record of (and tribute to) a vanished people. Trained as a lawyer, Catlin fled the tediousness and drudgery of the profession by immersing himself in drawing, specifically miniatures. Largely self-taught, he nonetheless had some formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in the early 1820s, under Thomas Sully and Charles Willson Peale, and he made his way as a journeyman artist. His portraits of Gov. DeWitt Clinton garnered some attention, but he was always in need of official patronage. Perhaps inspired by Charles Bird King’s portraits of tribal leaders in Washington, Catlin struck out West and attached himself to Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory. Portraying the Indians of the Southwestern plains became Catlin’s passion, and during the 1830s, over numerous visits embedded among the tribes, he painted hundreds of careful portraits; he often bought the Indians’ garments and artifacts to display later with the work as proof of his eyewitness. Much of the rest of his restless life was spent roving among London, Paris and Brussels, displaying his traveling Indian Gallery (and making a living from it), toeing that precarious line between artist and impresario. The author thoughtfully explores the complicated bleeding of empathy into exploitation.
Eisler’s fine, thorough work begs for a fresh reappraisal of this pioneering artist.