George Catlin was born in Connecticut in 1796, his family a member of the New England gentry. His family moved to Broome County, New York when Catlin was a child. He later studied law at the Lichfield Law School. However, Catlin was determined to become a painter, and early in his career set upon the idea "to become the historian and limner of the aborigines of the vast continent of North America."

Contemporary critics and Catlin himself acknowledged that such a pursuit would place him outside traditional artistic boundaries, and he would later insist in his catalogues and other writings that his work should be judged not on its artistic merit but "as a record of a vanishing race." To that end he attached certificates of authenticity to his paintings. In the spring of 1830 he set out for St. Louis, and for the next six years he traveled the vast area between the Mississippi and the Rockies, from North Dakota to Oklahoma, capturing the images that would become the nucleus of his Indian Gallery.

Like others of his era, Catlin believed that nature was holy and primitive man was nature's nobleman. Indians, he wrote, were "The finest models in all Nature, unmasked and moving in all their grace and beauty." To sustain this belief it was necessary to supress Indian history and see them as existing in a timeless, unchanging, and "pristine" state.

 

LETTERS AND NOTES ON THE
MANNERS, CUSTOMS, AND CONDITIONS OF
NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS

by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)


Volume 1

Volume 2