About George Catlin And His Work Painting the Plains Indians
Mandan Indian O-Kee-Pa self torture ceremony. "Immediately under the little frame or scaffold … on the floor of the lodge was placed a knife, and by the side of it a bundle of splints or skewers, which were kept in readiness for the infliction of the cruelties directly to be explained. There were seen also, in this stage of the affair, a number of cords of rawhide hanging down from the top of the lodge, and passing through its roof, with which the young men were to be suspended by the splints passed through their flesh, and drawn up by men placed on the top of the lodge for the purpose" (Letters and Notes, vol. 1, pp. 158–64, pl. 66).
George Catlin painting a Mandan Indian chief
A famous man in America fifty years ago was George Catlin. He was born at Wyoming, Pennsylvania, in 1796, and lived to a good old age, dying in 1872. His father wished him to be a lawyer, and he studied for that profession and began its practice in Philadelphia. He was, however, fond of excitement and adventure, and found it hard to stick to his business. He was fond of painting, though he considered it only an amusement. While he was living in Philadelphia a party of Indians from the “Far West” spent some days in that city on their way to Washington. Catlin saw them, and was delighted with their fine forms and noble bearing. He determined to give up law practice and to devote his life to painting Indians, resolving to form a collection of portraits which should show, after they were gone, how they looked and how they lived.
He made his first journey to the Indian country for this purpose in 1832. For the next eight years he devoted himself to the work. He traveled many thousands of miles by canoe and horse, among tribes some of which were still quite wild. His life was full of excitement, difficulty, and danger. He made paintings everywhere: paintings of the scenery, of herds of buffalo, of hunting life, Indian games, celebrations of ceremonies, portraits—everything that would illustrate the life and the country of the Indian.
Portrait of George Catlin.
Among the tribes he visited were the Mandans, who lived along the Missouri River. Some of his best pictures were painted among them. He there witnessed the whole of their sun-dance ceremony, and painted four remarkable pictures of it. These represent the young men fasting in the dance lodge, the buffalo dance outside, the torture in the lodge, the almost equally horrible treatment of the dancers outside after the torture. Although a terrible picture, we have copied the painting showing the torture in the lodge (see next chapter) as an example of his work. Other pictures by him are the ball-player (see and the chief in war dress
Sometimes the Indians did not wish to be painted. They thought it would bring bad luck or shorten life. At one Sioux village the head chief was painted before any one knew it. When the picture was done, some of the headmen were invited to look at it. Then all the village wanted to see it, and it was hung outside the tent. This caused much excitement. Catlin says the medicine men “took a decided and noisy stand against the operations of my brush; haranguing the populace and predicting bad luck and premature death to all who submitted to so strange and unaccountable an operation! My business for some days was entirely at a stand for want of sitters; for the doctors were opposing me with all their force; and the women and children were crying with their hands over their mouths, making most pitiful and doleful laments.”
At another town up the Missouri River, near the Yellowstone, there was a still greater excitement over one of Catlin's pictures. About six hundred Sioux families were gathered at a trading post from the several different sub-tribes of that great people. There had been some trouble over his painting, and the medicine men threatened that those who were painted would die or have great misfortune. An Uncpapa Sioux chief named Little Bear offered to be painted. He was a noble, fine-looking fellow, with a strong face which Catlin painted in profile. The picture was almost finished when a chief of a different band, a surly, bad-tempered man whom no one liked, came in. His name was Shonko, “The Dog.” After looking at the picture some time, he at last said in an insolent way, “Little Bear is but half a man.” The two men had some words, when finally The Dog said, “Ask the painter, he can tell you; he knows you are but half a man—he has painted but one half your face, and knows the other half is good for nothing.” Again they bandied words back and forth, Little Bear plainly coming out ahead in the quarrel. The Dog hurried from the room in a great rage. Little Bear knew he was in danger; he hurried home, and loaded his gun to be prepared. He then threw himself on his face, praying to Wakanda for help and protection. His wife, fearing that he was bent on mischief, secretly removed the ball from his gun. At that moment the insolent voice of The Dog was heard. “If Little Bear is a whole man, let him come out and prove it; it is The Dog that speaks.” Little Bear seized his gun and started to the door. His wife screamed as she realized what she had done. It was too late; the two men had fired, and Little Bear fell mortally wounded in that side of his face which had not been painted in the portrait. The Dog fled.
The death of Little Bear called for vengeance. Such an excitement arose that Catlin soon left, going further up the river. The warriors of the two bands organized war-parties, the one to protect, the other to destroy, The Dog. The Dog's brother was killed. He was an excellent man, and his death was greatly mourned. The Dog kept out of reach. Councils were held. When the matter was discussed, some things were said which show the Indian ideas regarding portraits. One man said:
“He [Catlin] was the death of Little Bear! He made only one side of his face; he would not make the other; the side he made was alive, the other was dead, and Shonko shot it off.”Another said: “Father, this medicine man [Catlin] has done us much harm. You told our chiefs and warriors they must be painted—you said he was a good man and we believed you! you thought so, my father, but you see what he has done! he looks at our chiefs and our women and then makes them alive! In this way he has taken our chief away, and he can trouble their spirits when they are dead! they will be unhappy.” On his return voyage Catlin had to be cautious, and avoided the Uncpapa encampment. Some months later The Dog was overtaken and killed.
Catlin's pictures varied much in quality. Some were fine; others were poor. Often he made the outlines and striking features wonderfully well.
Catlin was among the Mandans in 1832. Thirty-three years later Washington Matthews was in the Upper Missouri country. He had with him a copy of Catlin's book with line pictures of more than three hundred of his paintings. The Indians had completely forgotten Catlin and his visit, but were much interested in his pictures.
The news soon spread that the white man had a book containing the “faces of their fathers.” Many went up to Fort Stevenson to see them. They recognized many of the portraits and expressed great emotion. That is, the women did, weeping readily on seeing them. The men seemed little moved. One day there came from the Mandan town, sixteen miles away, the chief, Rushing Eagle, son of Four Bears, who had been a favorite of Catlin's. Catlin painted him several times (see opposite page 1). When the son saw his father's picture, though he gazed at it long and steadily, he showed no emotion. Dr. Matthews was called away on some errand, and told the chief that he would be away some time and left him alone with the book. He was obliged, however, to return for something, and was surprised to find Rushing Eagle weeping and earnestly addressing his father's portrait.
Catlin not only painted hundreds of pictures among many tribes; he also secured many fine Indian objects—dress, weapons, scalps, objects used in games, painted blankets, etc. With his pictures and curiosities, which had cost him so much time, labor, and danger, he traveled through the United States.
He exhibited in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and many less important cities, and everywhere attracted crowds. He went to Europe and exhibited in France, Belgium, and England. Every one spoke of him. He was the guest of kings and prominent men everywhere. Louis Philippe, King of France, was so much interested in his work that he proposed to buy the pictures and curiosities for the French nation. But just then came the Revolution which dethroned him, and the sale fell through. Many of Catlin's pictures and some of his curiosities are still in existence, and the greater part of these are in the United States National Museum at Washington.