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George Catlin and Native American Art: A Conversation with MONAH

Now through June, 13 objects from the Crystal Bridges collection are on view at the Museum of Native American History (MONAH) in Bentonville, Arkansas. Installed within galleries of historic Native American art, artwork by George Catlin, Thomas Cole, Cyrus Dallin, and James Henry Warre take on new points of reference.

First trained as a lawyer, George Catlin (1796-1872) was an artist, adventurer, author, inventor, and showman. In 1832, he traveled more than 1800 miles on the Missouri River from St. Louis to paint Native American peoples, their culture, and the landscape. In his lifetime, Catlin aimed to paint all the Indian tribes of North America to preserve, in his words, “the looks and customs of the vanishing race of native man in America.” Catlin’s attitude toward vanishing peoples was informed by US government policies (such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830) and rapid European American expansion from east to west.


a hand-colored lithograph of three native americans standing side by side
George Catlin, Printed by Day & Haghe, London, North American Indians, 1844, Hand-colored lithograph mounted on cardboard (2006.96.1).
a hand-colored lithograph of three native americans standing side by side
George Catlin, Printed by Currier & Ives, New York, North American Indians, ca. 1865, Hand-colored lithograph (2006.35.1).

Catlin capitalized on US interest in Native American peoples and produced hundreds of images and volumes of text about Native American peoples. On his 1832 journey alone, Catlin started 130 paintings and by the end of the decade, he had completed over 500 portraits, scenes, and landscapes that he compiled into an “Indian Gallery.”

Catlin toured his gallery of paintings, sometimes hiring Native peoples to accompany the presentation, throughout the United States and abroad to London, Brussels, and the Louvre in Paris. Most of Catlin’s images, however, were known and distributed through lithographs. In 1844, Catlin used the new technology of lithographic printing to produce his North American Indian Portfolio, which contains 31 plates (see the image on the left above and image below). Catlin’s images enjoyed even wider circulation when the popular printmaking firm Currier and Ives produced several of his portraits and scenes (see the image on the right above).


a hand-colored lithograph depicting an open prairie and a pair of native americans disguised as white wolves in costume and on all fours closing in on a herd of black buffalo
George Catlin, Printed by Day & Haghe, London, Buffalo Hunt, Under the White Wolf Skin, 1844, Hand-colored lithograph mounted on cardboard (2006.96.13).

Catlin’s portraits and scenes remain popular today, nearly 200 years after he painted Native American peoples on the upper Missouri River. Catlin’s images create an imaginary time capsule, as if viewing people frozen in the past. However, as he traveled the Missouri River, Catlin was a guest on the land and water tied to dozens of tribes including the Osage, Kansa, Kickapoo, Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, and Lakota peoples who persist today.

At MONAH, Catlin’s prints are enlivened with new points of reference, nestled within cases of feathered fans, a textile made by Ute artist Louis Fenno, a drum made by a Kiowa artist, moccasins from many nations and artists, Plains headdresses, and Lone Dog’s Winter Count—all made decades after Catlin visited and predicted vanishing tribes. In this environment, the presence of the objects serves to emphasize the continued presence of the peoples Catlin met and painted on his travels. The Meskwaki (Fox) bear claw necklace, for example connects to regalia worn by the standing Osage man in the North American Indians print. The bison hide worn by the Osage man also draws attention to Lone Dog’s Winter Count, on view nearby.


Want to learn more about this conversation? Read about Lone Dog’s Winter Count on MONAH’s blog.

the museum of native american history exterior view with trees on the left side and a teepee and buffalo sculpture on the right side
The Museum of Native American History, Bentonville, Ark.

Visit MONAH (202 SW O St., Bentonville, Ark.) before June to see the artwork on view and experience new conversations and contexts for George Catlin.