The Indian museum of George Catlin: an ark of Noah with an ethnographic vocation

The Indian museum of George Catlin: an ark of Noah with an ethnographic vocation

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Home ›Studies› The Indian museum of George Catlin: a Noah's ark with an ethnographic vocation

  • Indian ball game.

    CATLIN George (1794 - 1872)

  • Indians of the Sauk tribe.

    CATLIN George (1794 - 1872)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Indians of the Sauk tribe.

© BPK, Berlin, Dist RMN-Grand Palais - Gisela Oestreich

Publication date: February 2009

Historical context

Catlin and his work

In 1828, George Catlin, a self-taught painter who embarked on a career as a portrait painter for the American bourgeoisie, conceived the project of producing a pictorial work entirely dedicated to the Amerindians, of which he felt the end. The two paintings Indian ball game and Indians of the Sauk tribe are fairly representative of Catlin's Native American work: the genre scenes depict the activities or mores of the American Indians in their natural setting, while the portraits focus on specific individuals to show in detail the adornments, clothing , body paintings, weapons or jewelry of Native Americans. Each of these two works has a different purpose and therefore has distinct characteristics.

Image Analysis

Ethnographic documents

The first painting represents a ball game in a landscape of hills and plains typical of the sites where the Amerindians live. In the center of the stage, two groups seem to clash in two confused scrimmages at the foot of two goals marked by wooden poles. Some players fight hand-to-hand, others run towards a goal, still others watch the game waving sticks. Spectators gathered around the field and among them, two Westerners on horseback, no doubt members of the Catlin expedition, if not the author himself - a way of proving the authenticity of the story. work painted by a direct observer. Very lively, this canvas is painted with a quick touch from a distant point of view: it is about showing a moment in the life of the American Indians and the environment in which it takes place - the American plains, the camp established at the bottom of the hills and its scattered tents.

The second painting is a group portrait where only the account of the characters and their adornment: a woman and two men in ceremonial clothes with all their weapons and jewels pose in front of an indistinct landscape. Catlin adopts a tight frame and quickly brushes the background - green for the ground and blue for the sky - barely accented with a few brushstrokes to make the grass or clouds appear. The characters lack life: they have a static attitude and do not communicate with each other, as if they had been painted separately and then juxtaposed by the artist. The latter, however, details with precision their clothes, body paintings, weapons and jewelry. Catlin is in fact above all interested in the documentary aspect of his paintings, he does not bother with aesthetic problems - how to animate characters, to convey a feeling of perspective in a landscape… His paintings are ethnographic documents before their time. ; they provide an understanding of the culture of the Amerindians at the time by describing their customs, customs and dress. They initiated the second movement of discovery of Native Americans, whose lifestyles had already been studied by the Jesuits at the time of the Christianization of the country. Following Catlin, other painters, photographers and intellectuals continued this documentary work before ethnologists took over at the turn of the 20th century.e century.


Noah's syndrome

Like Noah and his ark, Catlin feels invested with a rescue mission: he wishes, through his paintings, to keep track of Native American culture before its disappearance and to make it known to Americans. He therefore set out to create a traveling museum in order to exhibit his paintings and the objects he collected, going so far as to hire a troop of Native Americans to animate his exhibition. By means of this public presentation, he hopes to find a buyer for his collection, which in his eyes forms an inseparable whole, the artefacts attesting to the veracity of his paintings. In front of the little echo that meets his work in the United States, no establishment wishing to buy his collection, he resolves to present his exhibition in Europe, and in particular in Paris in 1845 where it marks a whole generation of attached romantic artists. to question the traditional conception of art. From a completely different perspective, the French romantics perceive in the Catlin museum the proof of the universality of art and of aesthetic feeling, and his project thus knows a certain success: he has managed to propose a sufficiently convincing reconstruction of the Amerindian culture so that its manifestations are recognized as artistic.

Catlin's work is unique in its consistency and scope: not only did he go much further than most explorers of the time, sharing the life of the Amerindians, but he conceived from the start the project to bear witness to the culture. of the American Indians in its entirety, to form an indivisible collection which reveals all of their traditions. The man identifies so much with his work and his mission that when, riddled with debt, he sold his museum to a patron in 1852, he then endeavored to reconstruct his lost collection by repainting his paintings from memory.

  • Native Americans
  • Catlin (George)
  • United States
  • Museum


Daniel FABRE, Claude MACHEREL, “From the Far West to the Louvre: The Indian museum of George Catlin”, Gradhiva, n ° 3 new series, 2006.

To cite this article

Claire LE THOMAS, "The Indian museum of George Catlin: a Noah's ark with an ethnographic vocation"

Video: the ark encounter


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