Culture / Sam Toller

George Catlin – Preserver of the Soul

George Catlin

I take no shame in admitting that of all the creative forms, traditional art is the one I find hardest to appreciate. Perhaps this arises from a personal bitterness, as my hands restrict m to the childish art of stick figures or still life paintings attempted, then passed off as ‘Abstract’ interpretations

But today, I discovered another artist to join Norman Rockwell on my short shortlist of favorite painters. Whilst European settlers saw Native Americans as an enemy to be eradicated, early 19th century lawyer and painter George Catlin sought to preserve the Native American culture that was rapidly being diminished, through his detailed, emotive artwork. Although controversial at the time (one curator compared his work to a modern artist painting portraits of Taliban leaders), he presents Native Americans as a proud, resourceful, and spiritual race.

Catlin, born in Pennsylvania 1796, made 5 trips during the 1930’s, earning the trust of the Natives, allowing him to paint intimate portraits as well as capture rituals and buffalo hunts in stunning detail. His style is fascinating; with over 500 paintings produced in 10 years, it is no surprise that parts of his work seem sketchy and rushed. However, his precise focus on the upper half and in particular the face make his art poignant and affecting. What strikes me in almost all his portraits is the pride and dignity of his subject, they demand admiration for both his work and his inspiration.

His other work is subtle but intelligent; a proud young Native, as oblivious as the viewer to the approaching Europeans; a beautiful, bare landscape but for one Native, suggesting the plains are not free to be taken; or the dark detail of a coming of age ritual, which reminded the few remaining Mandan ancestors of old legends and revived the long forgotten tradition almost a hundred years later, all through Catlin’s detailed work.

But what really resonates with me is the way in which he lived his life. Although most of his work was completed in his lodgings during the winter, he spent the summer’s immersing himself in Native life, collecting initial sketches and artifacts which he carried with him on his travels. He was often caught in dangerous situations, such as when it was suggested to Caitlin’s subject that part of the soul was taken with the portrait. His work is an amazing testament to a great man. I was taken aback by an illustration of his exhibition in the Smithsonian Museum; 6ft glass showcases full of artifacts, while his 500 paintings fill the walls above.

George Catlin’s American Indian Portraits are on exhibition at The National Portrait gallery until the 23rd of June. The guides (without whom I nor this article would have such insight into Catlin’s work) are incredibly knowledgeable of the fascinating stories behind his work, and entry is free, so there is little excuse to miss Catlin’s work in its first collective exhibition outside of the US since 1850.

Sam Toller

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