George Catlin: Looking at Art to Understand the Past

A video by americanartmuseuam on conserving a George Catlin painting

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Anthropologists have used the work of artists to help better their understandings of the past.  One of the most well-known artists for depicting the prehistoric plains groups is George Catlin.  Catlin’s paintings provide a realistic representation of past human activities of indigenous people that had very little contact with Europeans.  In addition to his artwork, Catlin documented his experiences.  The combination of reports and visuals provided by George Catlin has been beneficial to learning about past human activities.

I find Catlin’s work to be appealing.  There is no way of denying his artistic abilities.  His paintings have captured moments of the past that were presented to me over and over again throughout my college experience.  I find myself intrigued not only by the mediums and methods of his work, but by the details which help expand my knowledge of the culture.  Many anthropologists and artists share my appreciation for Catlin’s work.  Not only that, but these paintings have helped spark an interest on the subject matter for the general public as well.  Catlin’s work is found in international museums and conservators assure that the paintings are preserved (see link to video at the top of the page).  Catlin painted many Native American tribes and some of his best work was created along the Missouri River.

My favorite piece  from an anthropological and artistic perspective is “Mandan Ceremony”.  This image provides anthropological information on the okipa ceremony and a visual of the brave young men participating in self-torture. (See image above).

The fact that I appreciate George Catlin’s work and his contributions to prehistoric knowledge does not mean I do not recognize his errors.  Catlin believed that the Mandan had contact with the Celtics and thought they were affiliated with Christianity.  He also reported that he believed the Mandan were related to the Welsh due to their fair skin and bowl shaped boats.  In a way I respect his ability to compare and contrast, but it is clear he had very little evidence for such a strong claim.  Of course, my opinion is from hindsight and with training on archaeological methods.

Even with these negative observations, Catlin’s artwork and documentations are beneficial to the studies of the past.  His work provides visuals for many aspects of indigenous life including rituals, dances, ceremonies, gender, regalia, material culture, resources, and the environment including flora and landscape in various viewpoints.  Catlin’s paintings can be utilized by archaeologists along with the physical artifacts to create a bigger picture for the prehistoric village life.  Having the early detailed images is an advantage to our understandings.  In addition, Catlin’s work provides a good example of why it is important to acknowledge biases when analyzing past representations of cultures.

What do you think of George Catlin?

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2 thoughts on “George Catlin: Looking at Art to Understand the Past

  1. I grew up in Catlin, Illinois, and had no idea where my hometown name came from. Only as an adult, visiting museums, did I realize that there was a famous artistic George Catlin. Enjoyed your post!

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