George Catlin was born in the city of Wilkes-Barre, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1796. As a youth, Catlin spent several hours fishing, hunting, and looking for Native American artifacts. His enchantment with Native Americans only increased, as his mother always told him stories of the western frontier and how she was once captured by a tribe. Perhaps this passion consolidated when a group of Native Americans passed through Philadelphia dressed in their traditional and colorful regalia, which caused a deep impression in young Catlin.
George Catlin’s early artworks included several engravings, most of them drawn from the nature of sites alongside the Erie Canal route through the State of New York. Several of said engravings were published in 1825 in one of the first books ever to use lithography technique, by Cadwallader D. Colden. Said book depicted several images of the City of Buffalo in its early development.
Between 1830 and 1838, Catlin accompanied distinguished American explorer William Clark on a bold diplomatic mission into Native American territory up the Mississippi River. Catlin visited more than fifty tribes during this period, some of them still relatively untouched by the European culture. During this journey, the artist would execute more than five hundred paintings, as well as collected many Native American artifacts.
Upon his arrival back to the East, Catlin promptly tried to sell his collection to the US Government, all in vain. The artist would tour with his collection across the Atlantic, through several European capitals. However, his touring collection did not receive many paying customers. His financial situation declined to the point Catlin was obligated to sell his collection, which was bought by Joseph Harrison.
George Catlin spent the following twenty years trying to recreate his lost collection, achieving an impressive number of 400 paintings. This second collection is known as the Cartoon Collection, for it was based on sketches he drew during his travels.
In 1872, upon the invitation of the first secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, to Washington DC. Catlin would work at the Smithsonian Castle until his death later that year.
In 1879, Joseph Harrison’s widow donated the original Indian Gallery to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.