This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the Special English program EXPLORATIONS.
Today we present the second part of our program about American
artist George Catlin and his paintings of Native Americans.
Last week, we told how George Catlin had begun his working
life as a lawyer. However, he was not happy with this work.
He gave up the law and began painting, first in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania and later in New York City.
He became a successful painter. He painted large and small
paintings of people. But he still felt that he needed to paint
something that was important.
George Catlin decided to paint Native Americans after he saw
a delegation of Indians on their way to Washington, D-C.
By the year eighteen-thirty, he had traveled to Saint Louis,
Missouri. From there he traveled north into lands that few white
Americans had ever seen. It was here that he met the first of
the many American Indians he would paint.
George Catlin left many letters telling about his travels.
He wrote that he often traveled alone, with only his horse,
¡°Charlie.¡± He carried his painting
supplies and enough food for a few days.
He also carried a rifle for hunting. Between eighteen-thirty
and eighteen thirty-six, Mister Catlin made five trips into
areas of the West that were considered unexplored Indian country.
He traveled many thousands of kilometers and visited fifty different
George Catlin painted almost everything he saw. He painted
pictures of unusual land that no white person had ever seen
before. He painted Native American men, women, and children.
He painted their clothes, weapons and villages. He painted the
people taking part in religious ceremonies, dances and the hunting
of buffalo. He often painted three pictures in one day.
George Catlin tried to capture in paint the Native American
people and their culture. For example, he painted many pictures
of Indians playing a ball game. The game is played with a stick
that has a small net at one end. The net is used to control
the ball. This Native American game is still played in the United
States and other countries today. It is called by the name the
French gave it ? ¡°lacrosse.¡±
George Catlin also kept exact records of the people, places
and events. Most of his paintings include the names of the people
and when they were painted.
George Catlin began to have deep feelings about the people
that he painted. He learned a great deal about them. He learned
that they were honest. They were intelligent. They represented
different cultures that had great value. George Catlin believed
that many of the men he painted were great leaders in their
own culture and would have been great leaders in any culture.
He believed the Native American Indians were people of great
worth. He also understood that the Indians could not block or
stop the westward movement of white people in America. He believed
that the American Indian would quickly disappear.
George Catlin put together a collection of his many paintings.
He called the display George Catlin¡¯s Indian Gallery.
He began showing the paintings in many cities in the United
States. He also gave long speeches about the Indians he lived
He told those who came to his talks that he had never felt
afraid while living in Native American villages. He said no
one ever threatened him or stole anything from him. He tried
to make people understand what a great people Native Americans
were. He said huge areas of the country should be left for Native
Americans to enjoy life as they always had.
Many people criticized George Catlin. Some said the people
in his pictures did not really look as intelligent and brave
as he had painted them. They said the religious ceremonies he
painted were false and that Indians did not really have ball
games. Some critics said George Catlin had invented these people.
The critics made George Catlin angry. He began to seek white
Americans who had traveled in Indian country. He asked army
officers, fur traders and others to sign documents that said
the people and events he painted were real. The critics stopped
saying his paintings were a lie.
George Catlin took his collection of paintings to Europe. He
also took many objects made by American Indians. The George
Catlin Indian Gallery was popular in London, England and in
Paris, France. French art experts praised his paintings. His
paintings and speeches were popular. Many people paid money
to visit his Indian Gallery, but he did not earn enough money.
He soon had financial problems.
Mister Catlin returned to the United States. There were about
five-hundred paintings in his Indian Gallery. He offered to
sell them to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D-C.
Several people worked to have the United States government buy
the paintings for the Smithsonian. However, Congress never approved
a measure needed for the sale.
George Catlin found a buyer for his Indian Gallery. It was
Joseph Harrison, a businessman in Philadelphia. Mister Harrison
bought the paintings but did nothing with them. For many years
they were left in a room in his factory. Mister Catlin was able
to pay most of his debts from the money he earned by selling
his paintings. He began painting again.
His new paintings were displayed at the Smithsonian Institution¡¯s
famous building called the castle. For the last year of his
life, he worked in a room in that building provided by the museum.
George Catlin died in eighteen-seventy-two. His famous Indian
Gallery paintings were still in a room in Mister Harrison¡¯s
factory. A fire at the factory almost destroyed them.
In eighteen-seventy-nine, the Secretary of the Smithsonian
Institution was Spencer Baird. Mister Baird knew the historic
value of George Catlin¡¯s paintings. The owner of
the paintings, Joseph Harrison, had died. So Mister Baird began
to negotiate with Joseph Harrison¡¯s wife, Sarah.
He asked her to give the collection to the Smithsonian.
Missus Harrison agreed. She gave George Catlin¡¯s
famous Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian. The gift also included
many Indian objects that Catlin had collected. These included
maps books, letters and other papers that told George Catlin¡¯s
Sarah Harrison¡¯s gift was one of the most important
ever received by the Smithsonian. For more than one-hundred-twenty-five
years, the public has been able to see George Catlin¡¯s
paintings. Art critics, art students and western history experts
have studied and examined them.
Today, George Catlin¡¯s Indian Gallery is on display
at the Smithsonian American Art Museum¡¯s Renwick
Gallery. The paintings have been carefully cleaned for this
event. They look new and fresh, as if they were painted recently.
Many of the objects that appear in his paintings are also on
display: An Indian chief¡¯s war shirt. A child¡¯s
bed. Bows and arrows. Shoes.
Art experts have praised and criticized George Catlin¡¯s
work. Some say he was not a good artist and could not paint
the human body well. Others say this is because he painted very
quickly. Most critics say his paintings of people¡¯s
faces are beautiful. They seem alive and real.
The Smithsonian will hold many special events at the Renwick
Gallery that deal with Native Americans, George Catlin and art.
These include demonstrations of traditional Native American
dances, decorating clothing, music and songs. Experts will discuss
the meaning and design of the decorations on Indian clothing.
In two-thousand-four, many of the Catlin paintings will travel
to Kansas City, Missouri; then to Los Angeles, California, and
then to Houston, Texas.
You can see many of George Catlin¡¯s paintings on
the Internet by using a search engine. Type the name George
Catlin, C-A-T-L-I-N or the Renwick Gallery, R-E-N-W-I-C-K.
George Catlin was afraid the American Indian would disappear
from the Earth. That was one of the reasons he painted so many
different tribes and different people. He wanted a record to
leave for history.
George Catlin was wrong. The American Indian did not disappear.
But his paintings provide a close look at the people, places
and events from a time that is now long gone.
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced
by Caty Weaver. I¡¯m Mary Tillotson.
And I¡¯m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for
EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.
This V-O-A Explorations Report is published
courtesy of VOAnews.com