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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

CATLIN, George

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George Catlin
CATLIN, George. (Wilkes-Barre, PA, July 26,1796--Jersey City, NJ, Dec. 23, 1872). Painter, ethnologist, writer. Catlin visited the Upper MISSISSIPPI RIVER in 1835. He spent many years studying Native American customs and is credited with four hundred seventy full-length portraits of Native Americans in the National Museum in Washington, D.C.

Catlin made a sketch quickly and finished the painting later. Popular thought at the time was that a rough, quickly drawn sketch better captured first impressions. The most finished part of his work was the head and face. His color palette was limited with many earth tones. To brighten his pictures, he used white or yellow to bring out highlights. (1)

Catlin's famous Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, published in 1841, led to his recommending a trip by steamer from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony with stops along the way at Rock Island, Galena, Dubuque, and Prairie du Chien. This "Fashionable Tour" was considered the part of the Far West accessible to the fashionable ladies of the eastern United States.

Catlin sketch of the Dubuque grave.
Dubuque's grave. Finished painting ca.1835-1836
Dubuque was remembered by Catlin for its romantic and scenic qualities. Viewing the spectacular bluffs, the huge deposits of LEAD, and the wide expanse of the river led Catlin to write that Dubuque would someday be the "mint" of the nation. While visiting the pipestone quarry in present-day Minnesota he picked up a sample of the soft rock which was later named "catlinite." (2)

Catlin negotiated with the federal government to purchase his Indian Gallery without success. He displayed his work in London, but was eventually forced to sell his collection to industrialist, Joseph Harrison. In 1872, Catlin traveled to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian. Until his death later that year in Jersey City, New Jersey, Catlin worked in a studio in the Smithsonian "Castle." Harrison's widow donated the original Indian Gallery-more than 500 works-to the Smithsonian in 1879. (3)



1. "Fort Union Artists-George Catlin." Fort Union Trading Post National Monument.

2. Ibid.

3. "George Catlin Biography," Online: http://www.georgecatlin.org/biography.html