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Core Theme – Catlin's Quest

George Catlin made significant decisions when he left his law practice and later his Philadelphia art career to journey through vast "wild" lands to pursue his mission of becoming the historian of American Indians. He overcame many obstacles and received praise for his work documenting the American West. His work is contemporaneous with the period of Indian Removal in the early 1830s, when most of the great eastern tribes were banished to the West, but the western tribes were still intact. Convinced that westward expansion spelled certain disaster for native peoples, he viewed his Indian Gallery as a way "to rescue from oblivion their primitive looks and customs."

His early method of presenting the Gallery was scientific, modeled on lectures given by Charles Willson Peale at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. He presented the paintings one at a time on an easel as illustrations for a lecture. Soon, falling attendance and financial pressures led him to adopt less respectable strategies. He courted audiences by presenting war dances, first by white actors in Indian costume, later by Indians themselves. He teamed up with a succession of promoters, including P. T. Barnum–at one point he was presenting Tom Thumb in conjunction with the Indian Gallery. In effect, Catlin's brand of showmanship would eventually lead to the "wild west" shows so popular in the 1870s.

The artist lobbied the U.S. government for patronage throughout his career, hoping Congress would purchase the Indian Gallery as a legacy for future generations. Disappointed in this goal, Catlin was imprisoned for debt in 1852. A Philadelphia industrialist paid Catlin's debts and acquired the Indian Gallery, and soon after Catlin's death, the paintings were donated to the Smithsonian. Today Catlin's Indian Gallery is recognized as a great cultural treasure, offering rare insight into native cultures and a crucial chapter in American history.

This theme explores the choices Catlin made–personal, professional, and artistic–his dreams and disappointments, his motives (sometimes praiseworthy, sometimes not), and the legacy he left. Lesson plans on this website correlate with national curriculum standards for U.S. History, English Language Arts, and Visual and Performance Arts.

Classroom Activities – Lesson Plans

  1. Inside Catlin's Head
  2. Letters fron the Frontier: Reading and Writing Primary Documents
  3. Creating the Past: Understanding Artifacts
  4. Connecting to the Past: Making a Memory Box

If you need assistance in implementing these activities, please consult our museum's education staff. They can help adapt or expand the existing lessons to meet your circumstances and curricular goals. Please contact us at AmericanArtEducation[at]si.edu.

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