The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman

Image of The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman
Release Date: 
July 22, 2013
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“. . . heartbreaking . . .”

Unraveling the quixotic and somewhat contradictory life of the great painter George Catlin must have been a daunting challenge.

Catlin was a champion of the beleaguered Indian yet exploited them for his benefit. He was a serious artist yet a shameless showman. He was a devoted family man yet he did not hesitate to drop everything on a whim and depart for remote wilderness. Catlin is a hard man to define, like his art: full of shading and nuance.

Author Benita Eisler has obviously done extensive serious research to peel back the onion of Catlin. Her book is based on countless books and records, interviews, academic papers, diaries, newspaper accounts, correspondence, and relevant visits. The scholarly detail might overwhelm at times with historical detours and minutiae, but we forgive it given the complexity of the problematic subject of the American Indian and Catlin’s roller coaster life.

This biography of the man we have come to know as the first artist of the West begins in 1796, the year Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It takes readers to Litchfield, Connecticut, and then on to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC, after which the self-taught artist ultimately sets out for Indian country in 1830.

Catlin embedded himself with the tribes he painted, departing from traditional portraiture to study and select chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws, and children from real life on the Northern Plains.

He was a celebrated artist-ethnographer who worked alongside General William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he attained celebrity beyond his wildest dreams. His access to infamous and exclusive tribes inspired more than 600 portraits and, for practically everyone at the time, Catlin’s images of Native Americans was their only insight into a way of life that was soon to vanish.

Catlin’s painting and writing reflected conflicting perceptions of the Indian and the Indian way of life. Both censure and sympathy are partnered in his artistic expression. To quote Leonardo, as the author does, “Every artist paints himself.”

This was our nation’s shameful period of efforts to eradicate and assimilate indigenous peoples and cultures. Against this backdrop Catlin went from advocate artist to showman to huckster. Failing to sell his “Indian Collection” of paintings and artifacts to the nation, he departed for Europe to wander about, putting live Indians on display for profit in a traveling show, exploiting the very people his art was intended to honor.

The Red Man’s Bones is a well-crafted and carefully researched tale of a solitary man in uncharted lands, a man who made himself into what he wanted to be. This is a man who while to this day remains a contentious figure, enjoyed the heights of fame and languished in the depths of despair.

It is heartbreaking to read about his tragic descent, which he seems to have faced with unfailing optimism. It is not pretty to read about the deterioration of a man who once was feted and flattered by kings and queens.

Catlin was plagued by so many wrong turns and very poor judgment. His conflicted and tragic life was a series of crises. His personal life was a mess. He was constantly in debt, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in financial ruin.

Perspective, one value every artist holds dear, seemed to be lacking in him. Obsessed with the West, he lost sight of his family, his friends, his beloved Indians, and his own future. Yet wherever he roamed, whether in his imagination or in reality, Catlin remained a passionate, devoted artist.

Elegist for a precious doomed race, Catlin himself faded ignominiously. When he died in 1872 with few mourners, so much of Catlin’s life was in doubt as to whether what was truth and what was imaginary. But as author Eisler says “a good story trumps facts anytime.”

In The Red Man’s Bones Ms. Eisler superbly blends the two.