George Catlin and “Indian” Art

From George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (1844).Ran across an article today titled, “George Catlin Indian Portfolio Sparks International Bidding Battle,” from a couple of days ago.

In a German auction, George Catlin’s “North American Indian Portfolio” almost doubled its starting price of 45,000 euros with a final result of 87,600 euros including commission, leaving several competitive bidders from the U.S. empty-handed. The heated bidding skirmish for the rare period document ended with a German victor.

This first edition copy, published by Catlin in 1844, is a distinctive firsthand account of Native American “hunting scenes and amusements of the Rocky Mountains  and prairies of America,” including the artist’s observations and images of tribal life in twenty-five  hand-colored lithographs.

I’ve heard there is a great deal of interest in Native American culture and art in Germany, and this seems to confirm it. However, I also was thinking that it is interesting that George Catlin’s work has, in many ways, become identified as “Indian” art. It is certainly a product of the time period, and while in some ways his work can be seen as documentary, I would argue that his work is just as influenced by his own cultural background as the photographs of Edward Sheriff Curtis. It is a product of colonialism and the Native people he depicts in his artwork are ultimately being shown through his lens, not their own.

I don’t think that there isn’t merit to his work. I just find it interesting that his work is likely more accessible to white collectors on a personal level than actual Native artwork due to the cultural viewpoint from which it was created.


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