Exhibition prepared for American Indian Heritage Month, November 2002
This small collection of George Catlin papers came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1879 with Catlin’s “Indian Gallery,” his famous paintings from life of Native Americans completed between 1830 and 1836. Joseph Harrison, a wealthy American industrialist, rescued Catlin’s works from London creditors in the 1850s. The papers and paintings then languished in various warehouses in Philadelphia and suffered at least two fires—the ravages of which can still be detected in the papers. Harrison’s widow, Sarah, donated the papers and gallery to the Smithsonian, a final disposition that Catlin, who had always wanted the U.S. government to buy the gallery, would have approved.
Included in the collection are letters, notes, receipts, and printed material, dating from 1821 to 1890, documenting Catlin’s efforts to promote and sell his Indian Gallery. The Catlin papers, which span the multiple disciplines of art, ethnology, cultural anthropology, and American history, embody the Smithsonian’s broad foundation and expansive vision.
In 2000, the Archives of American Art applied to the Smithsonian Women’s Committee for funds to conserve the George Catlin Papers and was awarded a grant for that purpose. Items that had suffered earlier fire damage were cleaned. Tears were mended and some of the more fragile letters, notebooks, certificates of authenticity, catalogs, and broadsides were encapsulated and re-housed in custom-designed archival boxes. The Archives gratefully acknowledges the support of the Smithsonian Women’s Committee in preserving this national treasure for future generations.