Review: George Catlin at National Portrait Gallery


George Catlin, White Cloud Head Chief of the Iowas

After seeing a great exhibition on the drawings of early nineteenth century artists Pomardi and Dodwell which I suggested had much in common with contemporary photojournalistic practice, I visited another exhibition of work to which this idea may apply even more. George Catlin (1796-1872) was an American painter who made his name with a series of portraits of native American Indians and who, if not an early visual journalist campaigning and creating visibility for the marginalised, was an early example of the ‘salvage ethnographer’ who sets out to document what he believed could not be saved.

Fascinated by American Indians and catalysed by the sense that they were a rapidly dying race, Catlin abandoned a potentially career as a lawyer and traveled west to make a series of portraits of prominent chiefs and tribal leaders, and to record scenes of day to day events and traditional rituals. These paintings, which eventually numbered more than six hundred, became a traveling exhibition which was shown around the United States and as far afield as London. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery marks the first return of the collection to the city in nearly two hundred years years.

Catlin was self-taught, and to be blunt it shows. His painting style is rough, even crude in some cases. His landscapes and scenes tend to have a rather flat sense of light and texture and sometimes quite strange proportions. The amateurish feel of some of the paintings is also exacerbated by his extreme attention to detail which rather reminds me of the type of ultra-obsessive detail in some outsider art. One quite small painting of St. Louis for example shows dozens of houses each with tiny individually painted windows. At portraits however he evidently became increasingly proficient as he worked, and the best example are really quite mesmerising pieces.

At any rate getting bogged down in the technical details (deficient or otherwise) of Catlin’s paintings really misses what I think makes them interesting, as the products of a compulsive urge to catalogue a disappearing culture. One gets the sense of a man really possessed by his project. Undoubtedly there was an element of the self-promoting showman about Catlin, something one gets a sense of from William Fisk’s portrait, also on display in the exhibition. But all things considered Catlin’s fixation with Native Americans and their culture seems completely genuine and in a way quite charming, as if the young boy who had once listened to his mother’s stories of the western frontier never quite grew up.

The irony of Catlin’s role in highlighting the plight of the native Americans is that he may have done as much to hasten their demise as anything else, certainly as a European he was as much part of the problem as the solution. The Steamers that allowed him greater access to Indian heartlands also introduced pathogens like smallpox which decimated the tribes there. Greater contact between whites and American Indians led in some cases to cultural erosion and increasingly pronounced Europeanisation, something which is evident in several of the portraits showing subjects wearing western dress.

This current exhibition is relatively small at least compared to the vast display I’ve seen photographs of at the Smithsonian but as I much prefer small, well rounded exhibitions to painfully large blockbuster shows that isn’t a complaint. There’s a nice selection of work, including a recreation of one of the remarkable large grids he originally displayed the portraits in. If you’re passing and have half an hour to spare it’s well worth dropping and immersing yourself in one man’s obsessive vision of a culture on the brink.

George Catlin: American Indian Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd June 2013

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