It was a legendary Frenchwoman who first led Benita Eisler back across the Atlantic to discover her own fellow American, the frontier artist and portraitist George Catlin. While researching her biography of novelist George Sand, Eisler came across Sand's descriptions of what was then the first Wild West show ever to tour England and Europe, organized and promoted by Catlin, and the result of his work with Plains tribes individuals. Sand's admiration for the American Indian performers who stood on an elegant stage demonstrating buffalo bow-hunting techniques and ceremonial dances to the foremost poets and artists of Paris tantalized Eisler.
But it was Sand's visit backstage to a grief-sick and dying Indian woman who had lost all three of her children during their journey from the New to the Old World that wrenched her heart. In the same month of reading Sand's interviews with Catlin himself, Eisler first viewed the astonishing assemblage of portraits that Catlin had made of a doomed nation during his odysseys into the vast lands west of the Mississippi River. The total collection, most of which is housed in the Smithsonian's Indian Gallery, numbers over 500 paintings, and includes landscapes, hunting scenes, dying bison, initiation torture spectacles, and—most especially—the portraits. Each picture is distinct and vivid; each portrait, of chief, brave, woman, or child, breathes with personality and immediacy. Each presents to our view a profound human being whose relatives and ways of life will shortly be extinct.
George Catlin had the same effect on Eisler.
“It's his 'otherness' [that first drew me],” Eisler says. “I'm never attracted to any subjects who are in any way like me. Many biographers are. They identify on some level with their subjects. The self-destructive artist, flaming out....” Eisler, a master biographer, is anything but. Her biography of Catlin, The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman, is being published this week.
Catlin's contributions to our history and culture are indisputable and unique—and his own fate was as tragic as his subjects'. Born in the late 18th century, his position occupies the temporal bridge between the Enlightenment and Modernism. He grew up the son of a failed farmer, lawyer, and land speculator in Conn. and the then-wild outlands of Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Outdoor life appealed to him; he spent much time hunting, fishing and polishing his rifle aim. After training in the practice of law back in Litchfield, Conn., he identified his true calling: art. Not long afterward, Catlin abandoned the law and became a painter of miniatures, and after that, a painter of large-scale portraits (an impoverished painter).
“Catlin had no [thorough] formal training at all,” Eisler says. “He had no talent in that area, no formal academic mode which gives you the means and the tools to paint successful white males in big cities on the East Coast.”
When, after many defeated attempts to secure steady commissions in the wealthy political venues of New York and Washington, he encountered Charles Bird King's portraits of visiting Indian delegations to the capitol city, Catlin was inspired toward a fresh vision: He would seek out new frontiers for his art. He would go west and paint America's indigenous peoples on their own ground. His reverence for the harmonious partnership with nature that characterized the Indian way of life made this a mission worthy of a career. And Catlin was well aware of the narrow window of time he had in which to accomplish his goal. Knowing what incursions Westward Expansion policies were making on the territories previously dominated by Native Americans, he determined "to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs."
“What makes Catlin such a fascinating man of paradox, is that he's both the most romantic in his writings about Indians particularly (there's so much about the Noble Savage, Rouseau) and at the same time, that impulse, that obsession with completeness: He's going to do the total, complete record of the vanishing race,” Eisler says. “It's an 18th century encyclopedic mentality. This always fascinates me: the Romantic, but also the 18th century impulse to order. There's so much there that is a century earlier.”
But Catlin's personal predicament extended beyond the impending loss of the tribal customs and people whose images he ironically preserved for the white conquerors' posterity (the Mandan tribe of North and South Dakota, for instance, who allowed Catlin to chronicle their most sacred rites of passage and renewal, were all dead five years after his visit of smallpox brought into their midst by white traders). Himself a true outsider, he felt a strong empathy with his subjects; he was also caught in the trap of cultural shifts taking place at that time in history within his own background and context.
“Catlin is a tragic figure, broken in the crucible between idealism and the need to make a lot of money,” Eisler says. “It was a mystery, and unknown to him: the definition of manhood as tantamount to success—the constant get-rich-quick schemes, the land speculations, the ownership and beginnings of the old Yankee husbandry and rural culture giving way in much starker terms and more quickly than any cultural change since, in the need to be a success, to be, as P.T. Barnum put it, a 'go-ahead guy.' It's like the death knell of idealism. It was a conflict that broke Catlin utterly.”
During Catlin's forays out west, while he snatched moments to enjoy a buffalo chase or worked feverishly to use the light before nightfall compelled him to stop (in one month-long stay at Fort Union, near the headwaters of the upper Missouri River, he painted three portraits a day), or nearly died while traversing the Arkansas-Texas Comanche ranges, he also tried to prepare himself for the fact that his productivity would have no future home or destiny, unless he could shape one by selling the entire collection of his 'Indian Gallery' to the U.S. Government as a memorial to the conquered peoples he so deeply respected. Given the further paradox he was fighting, i.e. the Jacksonian government's policy of land claims, removal to reservations and genocide, this proved to be a vain hope.
Thus Catlin—almost always penniless, struggling to financially assist his hapless father's family, as well as to support his own young wife and children—at last resorted to the new paradigm of his changing age: that of showman. Idealism had failed him. Entertainment, in the form of publicly educating new audiences with a thrilling anthropology, seemed to be his sole alternative. He traveled to England with his wife Clara, their children, his stacks of Indian portraits, and two grizzly bears which he had raised from cubs (and which, prophetically, would be dead within a year of arriving in their new home), and set up shop in Liverpool and London. For a time he was all the rage among the nobility and whatever other audiences could afford the price of admission to see his paintings and hear his illuminating talks. But once the novelty wore off, he was reduced to exhibiting live Indian performers, imported by a huckster from America, and backed by none other than that innovator of the new showmanship, P.T. Barnum himself.
From England to France and Brussels: the collision of cultures and environments eventually proved fatal to several of Catlin's Indian charges, just as they had the two bears. Tuberculosis, alcohol and displacement took their tolls. Debt, failure, bad luck and illness took their toll on Catlin; his wife died in Paris, followed by his only son, another parallel of the dying Indian mother whose plight had so moved George Sand. The rest of Catlin's life consisted of heartbreaks, thwarted hopes, separation from his remaining children, footloose travels and schemes, and eroded ambitions for his great achievement to find an appropriate permanent home. His story, so well-told by Eisler, demonstrates the ultimate paradox which has so often been the fate of the artist who outlives his own purpose: The world forgets while he dies in ignominy and poverty, and the gift he gives back to the world is an incomparable treasure. The sad conundrum in Catlin's case was simply this: He was both born at the wrong time for his own sake, and the right time for the transcendence of historical circumstance.
Carol Dawson is the author of four novels and one non-fiction historical book. She is also a painter.