This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. A new exhibit of paintings is being shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D-C. Today, we tell about the man who painted them. His name was George Catlin. And in this first part of two programs, we tell how he became one of the most important artists in American history.
George Catlin loved people. He loved their faces. He loved to paint faces expressing feelings. He understood how to paint feelings. You can look at one of his paintings of a person and see pride, honor, respect, intelligence and humor. George Catlin is most famous for painting Native Americans.
In the eighteen-thirties, George Catlin traveled into areas of the American West to paint and record the history of Native Americans. He learned more about the culture of Native Americans than most other white people of his time. George Catlin spent a good part of his life trying to show these people to the world.
George Catlin showed his paintings in Washington, D-C; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York City. Thousands of people came to see them. Thousands more came to see them in London, England and in the famous Louvre Museum in Paris, France. George Catlin probably did more than any other person to educate the public about the great people who lived in North America before Europeans arrived.
We begin our story just a few years after George Catlin was born, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was born in seventeen-ninety-six. His family soon moved to New York State near the great Susquehanna River.
George Catlin always said his early years were fun. He said he had to have a book in one hand because he was in school. In the other hand he most often had a fishing pole. When he was not reading or fishing, he was drawing the natural world he saw outside each day. George Catlin had little training in art. He mostly taught himself. However, his father made sure that he had a good education.
His father was a lawyer and he wanted George to be a lawyer too. George did as his father wished and became a lawyer. However he was not happy.
As a young man George Catlin was only happy when he was painting. He truly loved to paint. He decided to stop being a lawyer and become an artist. He moved into a small building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began to paint pictures of people.
He was good at this and he loved the work. He painted very small pictures of people. The pictures are called miniatures. Women often wore this kind of painting tied to a ribbon around their necks. Soon, he moved to New York City. He painted miniatures and larger pictures. He was becoming a well-known artist. He began painting pictures of important people. One was the governor of the state of New York, DeWitt Clinton.
Life seemed good for the young artist. George Catlin was doing what he loved and he was making a living as an artist. However, he thought something was missing from his life and his work. He wanted very much to paint something that was important.
He wanted to give something to the world of art that would be different. But he had no idea what this could possibly be.
In the eighteen-twenties, George Catlin saw something that would change his life forever. It was a delegation of Native Americans. About fifteen representatives from several tribes were passing through Philadelphia. They were on their way to Washington, D-C to meet with the president of the United States.
George Catlin had never seen anything like these Native Americans. Their skin was the color of the metal copper. Their hair and eyes were dark black. They wore clothes made of animal skins. They seemed fierce and dangerous.
Within a few days, George Catlin made an important decision. He told his family and friends he would study and paint Native Americans. His family was opposed to the idea. They told him it was extremely dangerous. They told him he might be killed. George Catlin answered his friends and family. He said, “Nothing but the loss of my life will prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian.”
In eighteen-thirty, George Catlin traveled to the city of Saint Louis, Missouri, near the Mississippi River. At that time Saint Louis was one of the last cities or towns you would find if you were traveling west. There was not much beyond Saint Louis but the Great Plains. There was nothing but wild, unexplored country. The country beyond Saint Louis could be extremely dangerous. Few white people had ever been further than Saint Louis.
However, George Catlin met someone who knew about the lands of the far West and had been there. He also knew many of the Native American tribes that George Catlin wanted to visit. That man was William Clark.
Twenty-six years before, William Clark was part of the famous team of Lewis and Clark who were the first white Americans to explore the far West. They had traveled from Saint Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back.
George Catlin immediately had a friend in William Clark. Mister Clark liked his idea of painting and learning about Native Americans.
He did not think George Catlin’s idea was dangerous. He did his best to help. General William Clark was the United States Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He immediately took Mister Catlin along on a trip up the Mississippi River to a place called Prairie du Chien. Here George Catlin saw a gathering of Native American tribes. He saw their clothes. He watched them and learned about their culture. He listened to their language. This trip was important to George Catlin because it strengthened his idea and plans to learn about and paint pictures of Native Americans.
George Catlin quickly returned home to Philadelphia to raise money for his project. Within a year he traveled west again. This time he went north to Fort Union in an area called the Dakotas. Here he set up his painting equipment and began to paint.
He said of this experience, “I have this day been painting a picture of the head chief of the Blackfoot nation. He is surrounded by his own warriors. He is an important man.”
The man George Catlin painted that day was named Stu-mick-o-sucks. He was chief of the Blood Tribe of the Kainai Blackfoot. George Catlin said the Blackfoot were a fierce and war-like tribe. They lived in the area that is now the border between the United States and Canada.
The beautiful painting of Stu-mick-o-sucks shows this fierce chief at the height of his powers. The chief of the Blood Tribe was about thirty years old when George Catlin painted his picture.
His face is a deep copper color. He has red paint on his jaw. His eyes are intelligent and watchful. His black hair hangs down to his shoulders. Part of his hair falls down between his eyes and is cut straight across. A head covering made of small feathers surrounds his hair. One large feather is worn to the right side of his head.
Stu-mick-o-sucks is dressed in his best clothing for this painting. It is clothing that he would wear for special ceremonies. On his chest is a round design made with several colors. The shoulders of his shirt are covered with pieces of cloth and hair to form other designs.
George Catlin captured in paint a man of honor and courage, a leader of his people. The artist had wanted to go west to paint Native Americans. With this painting and the many that were to follow, George Catlin succeeded. He had found his life’s work.
Join us again next week when we continue the story of George Catlin and his efforts to paint the people of the American West. If you have a computer that can link to the Internet, you can see Mister Catlin’s famous painting of Blackfoot Chief Stu-mick-o-sucks and many others.
Use a search engine and type the name George Catlin, C-A-T-L-I-N. Or type Renwick Gallery, R-E-N-W-I-C-K.
This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. Our engineer was Keith Holmes. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.