Artists Illustrating Boys' Fashions: George Catlin (1797-1872)

Figure 1.--This Catlin painting was I believe painted in Florida about in the 1830s, but I do not have the details to confirm this.

American painter, witer, and explorer George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Much of what is known about the life of the Plains Indians can be attributed to the artist and ethnologist George Catlin. Realizing that white settlers would eventually destroy the native cultures of North America, Catlin devoted his life to preserving the Indian heritage. He devoted his life to the study of native Americans in North America. He later traveled (1852-57) in Central and South America and in Europe.

Early Life

George Catlin was born on July 26, 1796, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He was one of 14 children of Polly Sutton and Putnam Catlin, a lawyer and gentleman farmer.

I know nothing anout the clothes he wore as a boy, but tunics and skeleton suits are likely.

I know little about his childhood, but as a boy he had a lively interest in native Americans.


George completed law school but soon decided to abandon his practice about 1823 to persue his interestv in art.


Catlin had little formal art training. He did, however, have a keen eye and a natural talent for capturing likenesses. Catlin quickly established himself in Philadelphia as a fashionable portrait painter. Catlin's boyhood interest in Indians, however, was rekindled by the visit of a delegation of tribal chieftains on their way to Washington, D.C. Catlin decided to abandon commercial portraiture and devote himself to creating a pictorial record of North American Indian life.

Catlin in 1830 moved west to St. Louis, which was at the time where the west began. He left his young wife, Clara, behind in the East. Between 1832 and 1837--traveling by boat, horse, and foot--he visited 48 different Indian tribes. He painted portraits of the major tribal leaders, sketched and painted scenes of village life, took detailed notes, and amassed a fine collection of Indian clothing, weapons, and other artifacts. He returned East in 1836 with the hope that the United States government would purchase his collection. Despite the urging of many prominent citizens, Congress refused to appropriate funds.

Rejected in his own country, Catlin in 1839 took his "Indian Gallery" to Europe. The exhibit was acclaimed, but Catlin went bankrupt and was forced to sell the entire collection. In Paris his wife and son died. His three daughters had to be sent to live with relatives. From 1852 to 1858 Catlin continued his wanderings. He went to Brazil in an unsuccessful search for gold and stayed to paint the Indians. The painter returned to the United States in 1870 and died in Jersey City, N.J., on Dec. 23, 1872. After his death, Catlin's works were installed in several important United States museums.

Body of Work

Catlin devoted his artistic career to painting Native Americans' portraits, collecting their artifacts, and recording their traditions and ceremonies. He believed that Native American cultures would soon become extinct, and he conceived of his art a memorial to Native peoples. He painted a series of full-length portraits of native Americans, now in the National Portrait Gallery but presumably will be transferred to the National Museum of Native American Art. He also did many sketches of native American life which are held by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His writings include Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841), and Last Rambles Among the Rockies and Andes (1868).

Christopher Wagner

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Created: October 26, 1999
Last updated: October 26, 1999