The Race to Publish: Images of the American Indian in the 1830s
During the early part of the 1830s, Western expansion was in its full force. Following the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, Ohio was admitted as the 17th State of the Union in 1803, and was rapidly settled. The push West continued. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers became major conduits for exploration and further settlement: trading posts were well established, regular army patrols conducted, and expansion increased.
At this time, a proliferation of visual material related to the American Indian Tribes began to surface. This sudden appearance was largely due to improbable work of the three artists working separately, albeit under parallel circumstances. Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893), George Catlin (American, 1796-1872), and James Otto Lewis (American, 1799-1858) each devoted their life's work to the American Indian subject.
Several variables attributed to this sudden explosion of related visual material, and it was not entirely coincidental. The time was ripe for exploration. As Western expansion continued, the material and means were available to these artists to work efficiently, each in his own way. Government funding made materials and travel arrangements possible. There was a tremendous desire for news from the "Great West". The general population's insatiable desire for stories and images of the American Indian Tribes provided subject matter for artists. Finally, and perhaps most important - printed media, especially lithography, were now readily available from American publishers and images could be widely disseminated.
The monumental (and unlikely) figures of this movement, Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, came from very different circumstances- Catlin the purely American capitalist and relentless self-promoter, Bodmer the reserved, quiet, Swiss printmaker and draughtsman. Each produced an enormous body of work that survives, amazingly, in original form and also in the form of published prints.
George Catlin began his artistic career as an itinerant miniature portrait painter in Philadelphia. This was common work for an artist attempting to make a living. After witnessing a delegation of Native Americans passing through Philadelphia, Catlin was hooked. In 1830, Catlin joined forces with General William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River. From 1830-1836, Catlin took 5 trips, resulting in an abundance of original portraits, landscapes and cultural studies. St. Louis was his base of operations, and paintings were stored there until Catlin felt he had amassed enough material to market back East.
Catlin was a gifted promoter, and often remarked that the American Indian Tribes were rapidly disappearing, highlighting the rarity of his paintings. By 1838, Catlin had fully cataloged his collection and displayed them in his great "Indian Gallery" in New York. He received a great deal of attention from the public, but Catlin was unable to sell his entire collection to the United States Government. Sorely disappointed at the rebuff, Catlin took his gallery on tour through Europe, and eventually sold his collection, due to financial difficulty, to a wealthy Philadelphia collector. Amazingly, the collection of original paintings survives today. Had the Smithsonian purchased the works as Catlin had intended, they would have almost certainly burned in a fire that consumed the Smithsonian in 1865. Ironic, that Catlin's failure to sell his collection during his lifetime to the government was the very reason his collection survived.
Although Catlin made great press with his "Indian Gallery," one was more likely to see one of his images from Catlin's "North American Indian Portfolio." Published in 1844, with 25 color plates in each, these volumes were inexpensive and accessible to the common collector. Most of these are broken out, or divided into single plates and framed today. They regularly surface on the market and are in demand. Catlin's originals are primarily at the Smithsonian or in institutional hands.
Karl Bodmer, Swiss born draughtsman, had little flair for the dramatic. He was selected to accompany German explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied on a scientific expedition to North America, specifically to document the native tribes, geography, and various animal and plant species. Being a scientific expedition with the eventual goal to publish, Bodmer's work was incredibly precise, and is viewed by scholars today as being a more accurate representation of the various American Indian Tribes. From 1832-1834, Bodmer's group traveled along the Missouri River, recording their findings. Like Catlin, Bodmer was exploring during the same period of time and produced an enormous body of work, primarily watercolors. His work primarily focused on American Indian subjects and their art, utensils and cultural ceremonies, as well as landscapes.
Upon returning to Germany, Bodmer became engaged in the printing process. 81 illustration plates in total were designed as hand colored etchings and aquatints, to be incorporated into Prince Maximilian's "Travels in the Interior of North American." The entire book was published, after much consternation and funding difficulty, in London in 1839. The book was published and distributed. Like Catlin's plates, Bodmer's usually surface on the market today as individual plates. His entire collection of original watercolors was purchased and now resides at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.
In today's market, both Bodmer and Catlin works on paper command strong prices at auction. Though numerous plates were produced, it is rare to find them in good condition, and they are some of the first examples of American Indian subjects produced in printed form.
Though Bodmer and Catlin were the most productive as far as printmaking was concerned, another artist was the first to have his original portraits of American Indians published. James Otto Lewis' "Aboriginal Portfolio" is exceedingly rare, and his lithographs do not often surface on the market.
Lewis was born in Detroit, and proving to be an adept portrait artist, was commissioned by the United States Indian Department to execute likenesses of well known Indian figures attending treaties or councils. Much of these meetings occurred near Detroit, and Lewis produced a portfolio with several highly regarded figures, such as Tecumsah. He sought out Lehman & Duval, a Philadelphia publisher, to produce his work in lithographs. The "Aboriginal Portfolio" was produced in ten installments for subscribers, each containing eight illustrated plates.
The publication process for Lewis was wrought with financial and logistical difficulties. A small number of each volume was produced. In addition, a tenth volume was produced, though many scholars believed until recently that it was never accomplished until a full "Portfolio" was discovered in the collection of the Indiana Historical Society. The "Portfolio" was produced from 1835-1846, preceding both Catlin and Bodmer's published work. Lewis' work is criticized by some scholars for the artist's compulsion towards exaggerated features and lack of accuracy, though other scholars praise his elaborate depiction of clothing, jewelry and accoutrements.