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George Catlin papers, 1821-1904, 1946

George Catlin papers, 1821-1904, 1946

Catlin, George, 1796-1872


Representative image for George Catlin papers, 1821-1904, 1946

The papers of George Catlin in the Archives of American Art were digitized in 2005 from 2 reels of microfilm. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 2,360 images.

The microfilm for this collection was fully digitized in 2005 as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art Digitization Grant.

Collection Information

Size: 2.3 linear feet

Summary: The collection comprises 2.3 feet of papers concerning George Catlin's creation and promotion of his famed "Indian Gallery" of paintings, drawings, and artifacts of North American Indians. Dating from 1821 through 1904, with one item dated 1946, the papers the papers include letters, notebooks and journals, receipt books and loose receipts, printed materials, and other documentation. The bulk of the collection focuses on Catlin's efforts to promote the sale of his gallery to the United States government through tours, including London and Paris, and petitions to various governments to purchase the Gallery. Among the rare printed catalogs and petitions in the collection are exhibition catalogs for the U.S., London, and Paris tours, the earliest dating from 1837. Letters and other documents include letters dating from the 1830s from Henry Clay, Thomas Sully, and William Henry Seward commending Catlin's work, as well as Catlin family correspondence and papers dating from 1821 through the 1870s.

Of particular interest in the collection are letters to and from Catlin, including two written by Catlin during his early travels to the west in the 1830s. Other letters include ones from Henry Clay, John Adams Dix, Ralph Randolph Gurley, James Hall, William Henry Seward, Thomas Sully (illustrated), and Baron Friederich von Humbolt, among others. Most wish Catlin well and offer support in his endeavors to sell his collection.

Also found within the collection are several notebooks and notes describing Native American ceremonies, name translations, customs, and other information pertinent to Catlin's catalog, two volume book, and exhibitions of the "Indian Gallery." There are also numerous loose receipts and account and receipt books documenting the 1840s London and Paris venues of the "Indian Gallery" exhibition. The collection also houses printed catalogs for the exhibitions, including a rare 1837 catalog for the first show in New York.

Additional materials include certificates of authenticity testifying to the authenticity of Catlin's paintings from life of Native American sitters, announcements relating to exhibition openings, printed memorials and petitions to Congress, printed letters of support, envelopes and name cards, and handwritten tickets to Catlin lectures. Also found are a handwritten journal of Theodore B. Catlin, photogravures of Catlin, obituaries for Catlin, and printed reviews of the exhibitions.

Biographical/Historical Note

George Catlin (1796-1872) was a portrait painter, miniature painter, and ethnographer, best known for his paintings of the American Indian.


Deposited at the Archives of American Art 1981 by Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution.

Related Materials


The microfilm for this collection was fully digitized in 2005 as part of the Terra Foundation for American Art Digitization Grant.

A Finding Aid to the George Catlin Papers,
1821-1904, 1946
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical/Historical note
George Catlin was born in 1796 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Although trained as a lawyer, Catlin quit his law practice and moved to Philadelphia in 1823 to begin a career as a portrait painter. He gained membership in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1824, but his career in formal portraiture met with little success. In 1830, Catlin embarked upon his lifetime achievement of documenting the lives, customs, and culture of the declining native American population of the Plains. He spent the next six years traveling, drawing, painting, and writing about the Plains Indians. By 1837, he had amassed enough documentation to hold a major exhibition in New York of
Catlin's Indian Gallery of Portraits, Landscapes, Manners and Customs, Costumes, etc.
The same exhibition, with an added live show, traveled to London in 1842 and Paris in 1845, where it was met with rave reviews.
Catlin spent the remainder of his life gathering support for the sale of the Indian Gallery to the U.S. Congress. Between 1841 and 1842, at his own expense, Catlin wrote and published his two volume set
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.
He also wrote numerous petitions and "memorials" to Congress, often including statements from national and international reputable supporters, such as Daniel Webster, General Lewis Cass, the Joint Committee on the Library (of Congress), and the American Ambassador to France. The Smithsonian Institution's first Secretary Joseph Henry strongly supported congressional acquisition of Catlin's work and even provided Catlin with a small studio in the Castle building. All of the appeals to the government for the purchase of the collection were, in the end, unsuccessful and Catlin died almost penniless in 1872.
Arrangement note
The George Catlin papers are arranged into five series based primarily on document type. Within each series, materials are arranged in chronological order.
Series 1: Correspondence, 1821-1885 (Boxes 1, 6; Reel 5824; 12 folders)
Series 2: Writings, 1825-circa 1872 (Boxes 1, 6; Reel 5824; 9 folders)
Series 3: Financial Records, 1826-1848 (Boxes 2, 6; Reels 5824-5825; 13 folders, 3 bound volumes)
Series 4: Catalogs, 1837-1871 (Boxes 3-5; Reel 5825; 1 linear foot)
Series 5: Ephemera and Miscellaneous Printed Material, 1832-1904, 1946 (Boxes 5-6, OV 7; Reel 5825; 14 folders)
Deposited at the Archives of American Art 1981 by Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution.
Processing Information note
The collection was processed by Patricia K. Craig in 2001. The microfilm was digitized in 2005 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional Forms Available

The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

George Catlin papers, 1821-1904, 1946. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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