Original Document
Original Document
George Catlin Explains His Life's Work Painting Indians, 1841.

Catlin told the story of his journeys among the Indians in Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, first published in 1841. In the passage below, he describes his early childhood and the source of his inspiration for his Indian portraits.

"I proceed to say– of myself, that I was born in Wyoming, in North America, some thirty or forty years since, of parents who entered that beautiful and famed valley soon offer the close of the revolutionary war, and the disastrous event of the "Indian massacre."

The early part of my life was whiled away, apparently, somewhat in vain, with books reluctantly held in one hand, and a rifle or fishing-pole firmly and affectionately grasped in the other.

At the urgent request of my father, who was a practicing lawyer, I was prevailed upon to abandon these favorite themes, and also my occasional dablings with the brush, which had secured already a corner in my affections; and I commenced reading the law for a profession, under the direction of Reeve and Gould, of Connecticut. I attended the lectures or these learned judges for two years– was admitted to the bar–and practiced the law, as a sort of Nimrodical lawyer, in my native land, for the term of two or three years; when I very deliberately sold my law library and all (save my ride and fishing-tackle), and converting their proceeds into brushes and paint pots; I commenced the art of painting in Philadelphia, without teacher or adviser.

I therefore closely applied my hand to the labors of the art for several years; during which time my mind was continually reaching for some branch or enterprise of the art, on which to devote a whole life-time of enthusiasm; when a delegation of some ten or fifteen noble and dignified-looking Indians, from the wilds of the "Far West," suddenly arrived in the city, arrayed and equipped in all their classic beauty,–with shield and helmet,– with tunic and manteau, tinted and tasselled off, exactly for the painter's palette!

In silent and stoic dignity, these lords of the forest strutted about the city for a few days, wrapped in their pictured robes, with their brews plumed with quills of the war-eagle, attracting the gaze and admiration of all who beheld them. After this, they took their leave for Washington City, and I was left to reflect and regret, which I did long and deeply, until I came to the following deductions and conclusions.

Black and blue cloth and civilization are destined, not only to veil, but to obliterate the grace and beauty of Nature. Man, in the simplicity and loftiness of his nature, unrestrained and unfettered by the disguises of art, Is surely the most beautiful model for the painter,–and the country from which he hails is unquestionably the best study or school of the arts in the world: such I am sure, From the models I have seen, is the wilderness of North America. And the history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the life-time of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life, shall prevent me from visiting their country, and of becoming their historian."

Credit: From George Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, 2 volumes (1841; Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, Inc., 1965), volume 1, letter 1.
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