The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman

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The first biography in over sixty years of a great American artist whose paintings are more famous than the man who made them.
George Catlin has been called the “first artist of the West,” as none before him lived among and painted the Native American tribes of the Northern Plains. After a false start as a painter of miniatures, Catlin found his calling: to fix the image of a “vanishing race” before their “extermination”—his word—by a government greedy for their lands. In the ...

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The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman

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The first biography in over sixty years of a great American artist whose paintings are more famous than the man who made them.
George Catlin has been called the “first artist of the West,” as none before him lived among and painted the Native American tribes of the Northern Plains. After a false start as a painter of miniatures, Catlin found his calling: to fix the image of a “vanishing race” before their “extermination”—his word—by a government greedy for their lands. In the first six years of the 1830s, he created over six hundred portraits—unforgettable likenesses of individual chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws, and children belonging to more than thirty tribes living along the upper Missouri River.
Political forces thwarted Catlin’s ambition to sell what he called his “Indian Gallery” as a national collection, and in 1840 the artist began three decades of self-imposed exile abroad. For a time, his exhibitions and writings made him the most celebrated American expatriate in London and Paris. He was toasted by Queen Victoria and breakfasted with King Louis-Philippe, who created a special gallery in the Louvre to show his pictures. But when he started to tour “live” troupes of Ojibbewa and Iowa, Catlin and his fortunes declined: He changed from artist to showman, and from advocate to exploiter of his native performers. Tragedy and loss engulfed both.This brilliant and humane portrait brings to life George Catlin and his Indian subjects for our own time. An American original, he still personifies the artist as a figure of controversy, torn by conflicting demands of art and success.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Eisler (Chopin’s Funeral), the noted biographer of George Sand, Lord Byron, and others, delivers an engrossing account of George Catlin (1796–1872), the self-taught American artist, explorer, and amateur ethnologist who painted images of more than 30 tribes of the northern plains. After a sluggish career as a portrait painter of miniatures in Philadelphia, Catlin set off for St. Louis and the northern plains above Missouri, where he was the first artist to live among the Native Americans, sharing meals, games, ceremonies, and bison hunting expeditions with his subjects. Eisler vividly recreates Catlin’s years among the Indians and focuses on his ambiguous feelings toward them. After spending much of the 1830s in Indian country, from Pensacola, Fla. to the pipestone quarry in Minnesota, Catlin began a traveling show of his paintings and Indian artifacts. But during his long stay in Europe, he incorporated live Indians into his show, becoming an exploiter rather than an advocate. As Eisler shows, tragedy and money woes dogged Catlin, to the point where he spent a stint in an English debtor’s prison. An elegant and skillful writer, Eisler captures Catlin’s many roles, and notes how even today, he remains a “contentious figure.” Illus. Agent: Gloria Loomis, Watkins / Loomis Agency. (July)
Stacy Schiff
“A sparkling biography of the artist and impresario George Catlin, so much an American original that he lived most of his life abroad. Rich in exceptional feats, odd twists, and wrong turns, Red Man's Bones captivates completely.”
Amanda Foreman
“Through her impeccable scholarship, Benita Eisler masterfully illuminates the tragic life of 19th Century artist George Catlin, America's forgotten portraitist of Native American life. The Red Man's Bones is that rare kind of 'warts and all' history, showing the real Catlin while successfully making the case for his elevation to the pantheon of great American artists.”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
“An elegant, thoughtful new biography.”
Jonathan Lopez - Wall Street Journal
“Marvelous … wonderfully nuanced and compelling … Ms. Eisler's book is far and away the best biography of Catlin in existence.”
Tim Bross - Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
“Pitch-perfect… [Eisler] is a skilled writer, showing both flair and economy.”
New Yorker
“[A] lively and well-researched biography.”
Library Journal
George Catlin was not a natural artist, but his lifelong fascination with Native Americans—spurred by his mother's stories of her capture by a tribe as a girl on the frontier—led him to make illustrating Indians' traditional customs and garb his life's mission. He visited more than 50 tribes between 1830 and 1836 and produced hundreds of paintings, portraits, and life scenes documenting the peoples of the Northern Plains. His 600 works, many illustrated here, are a treasure of pictorial information about the Indians at a period of upheaval owing both to the Indian Removal Act and epidemic disease. Although Catlin had limited commercial success as a painter, he went on to produce the first live "Wild West" shows, which appear to today's eyes sensational and exploitative. He died an impoverished man, but, as dreamed, his works are now housed by the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art. Eisler (Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame) conducted extensive research into archives for this biography, surprisingly the first of such depth. VERDICT While at times the narrative seems disjointed, the attentive reader will enjoy this fascinating story.—Nancy B. Turner, Syracuse Univ. Lib., NY
Kirkus Reviews
A welcome new evaluation of a significant American artist honed by the Wild West spirit and hucksterism of the age. Biographer of Byron, Chopin, George Sand and others (Naked in the Marketplace: The Lives of George Sand, 2007, etc.), Eisler now turns her considerable research talents to fleshing out the life and work of Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin (1796–1892), whose sympathetic portraits of the Native Americans he sought out and lived among render an incalculable record of (and tribute to) a vanished people. Trained as a lawyer, Catlin fled the tediousness and drudgery of the profession by immersing himself in drawing, specifically miniatures. Largely self-taught, he nonetheless had some formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in the early 1820s, under Thomas Sully and Charles Willson Peale, and he made his way as a journeyman artist. His portraits of Gov. DeWitt Clinton garnered some attention, but he was always in need of official patronage. Perhaps inspired by Charles Bird King's portraits of tribal leaders in Washington, Catlin struck out West and attached himself to Gen. William Clark, governor of the Missouri Territory. Portraying the Indians of the Southwestern plains became Catlin's passion, and during the 1830s, over numerous visits embedded among the tribes, he painted hundreds of careful portraits; he often bought the Indians' garments and artifacts to display later with the work as proof of his eyewitness. Much of the rest of his restless life was spent roving among London, Paris and Brussels, displaying his traveling Indian Gallery (and making a living from it), toeing that precarious line between artist and impresario. The author thoughtfully explores the complicated bleeding of empathy into exploitation. Eisler's fine, thorough work begs for a fresh reappraisal of this pioneering artist.
Sterling North
“Ralph Moody's books "should be read aloud in every family circle in America."”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393066166
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/22/2013
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 688,506
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Benita Eisler's subject is the life and work of artists, and their worlds. She has written on the Romantics, Byron, Chopin, and George Sand, and is the author of a dual biography of early modernists Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. She lives in New York City.

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    Posted July 30, 2013

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