- George Catlin, American, 1796-1872
- Born: Pennsylvania
- United States
About the Artist
George Catlin [CAT-lin] was born in Pennsylvania in 1796. At age 33, he had a new wife and a promising career as a portrait painter, but he was still searching for a way to leave his mark on the world. Like most people at the time, Catlin believed American Indian cultures were doomed. He decided to abandon his career, journey west, and devote his life to documenting these “vanishing races.” Over the next six years, Catlin visited 48 tribes and, though he had very little formal training, created hundreds upon hundreds of paintings. After his last trip west, Catlin focused on promoting his “Indian Gallery.” This exhibition featured hundreds of paintings and artifacts, a tipi, models posing in American Indian dress, and sometimes even reenactments of dances, ceremonies, and battle scenes.
While some believe that Catlin’s work exploits American Indian cultures, others see his paintings as important records of the history of various tribes. “Future generations are going to need [Catlin’s paintings and writings] because nobody tells the stories anymore . . . Whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate, [Catlin’s stories] are gonna be there, because they’re written down,” says Lyle Gwin (Mandan/Hidatsa). Regardless of interpretation, George Catlin is remembered for dedicating his life to making a pictorial record of American Indian cultures.
What Inspired It
The Cutting Scene is part of a series of four paintings by Catlin that depict the O-kee-pa ceremony, the central religious activity of the Mandan Indians. The young men in this painting were willing participants in this sacred ceremony, which was held to ensure the community’s prosperity. During the part of the ritual depicted in this painting, wooden splints were inserted into the participant’s chest and back muscles (a procedure that, although painful, didn’t cause lasting injury). The participants were then suspended by cords that were lowered down from the top of the lodge and attached to the splints. According to Calvin Grinnell, Cultural Preservation Specialist for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, “this is a trance-like state, they would be faint, and that’s when we believe the messages come.” These men would have considered it a great honor to take part in the O-kee-pa ceremony, at the end of which they were recognized as warriors of courage and fortitude.
By sheer chance, Catlin arrived in a Mandan village a week before their O-kee-pa ceremony began. Over the course of this week, he won the community’s respect and admiration by painting their portraits. Catlin returned the community’s sentiment and stated, “A better, more honest, hospitable and kind people, as a community, are not to be found in the world.” When the ceremony began, a holy man invited Catlin to witness the events taking place inside the sacred lodge. Catlin was one of the few non-Indians to witness this ceremony, which was outlawed in 1890.
Catlin’s painting looks sketchy and to some, unfinished. DAM art historian and Catlin scholar Joan Carpenter Troccoli says, “He left things in a sketchy state because that is the most truthful moment in the history of a picture, when an artist is right in front of his subjects.” Catlin was working hard to document as many different tribes as possible. Always in a rush, he painted swiftly, in thin layers of paint that would dry quickly.
In the bottom right corner of this scene, male elders, chiefs, and medicine men sit and observe the event. According to Grinnell, they “were taking a measure of [the young men’s] character and their fortitude and their willingness to sacrifice for the common good.”
In the bottom left corner, participants prepare for the ceremony by feasting and staying awake for four days. Grinnell explains, “It’s a means of focusing the mind on your prayers, on your communication with the Great Spirit and the lesser spirits.”
Just to the right of the fire, two men put splints into the arms, legs, and chest of a participant. The participant probably painted his body with white clay. Catlin noted that all participants painted themselves red, yellow, or white.
Grinnell points out that bison skulls have been hung from one participant’s legs “to add weight to his suffering.”
The men sitting on top of the lodge lower down cords that are attached to the splints in the participant’s arms, legs, and chest.
The Mandan lived in circular earth lodges similar in design to the circular lodge seen in The Cutting Scene.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Ritual and ceremony play an integral role in a culture. Have students research a ceremony used by another tribe that Catlin documented. In addition, have them illustrate an event in the ceremony they researched.
- Catlin’s technique was often referred to as “clumsy” or “sketchy” as he would often paint quickly on site; he believed sketches were more truthful and indicative of the moment. People were often the central focus of Catlin’s work, either as an individual or as a group. Have the class form a circle with sketching materials in hand. Ask a student to come to the center of the circle and “strike a pose”. Give the rest of the class only 30 seconds to a minute to quickly sketch the form. The point is not to worry about details but to just note the essentials. Continue the activity with at least 10 models. This will give the students an idea of Catlin’s process and they will surely be surprised by what they can accomplish in a short period of time when they just focus on the essence of the figure.
- Edward S. Curtis had a very similar mission but he documented American Indians using photography a little less than a hundred years later. Have the class explore the differences and similarities between Catlin and Curtis’s works.