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George Catlin papers, undated

Biographical 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.