The prints of George Catlin mark a poignant and heroic moment in the history of American art and culture. Setting out to chronicle and immortalize Indian culture, George Catlin lived a life of pioneer adventure and spirit colored by the ideal of the ‘noble savage’ in his pristine environment. In 1830 he went out to St. Louis and from there traveled extensively for several years to Indian villages along the Platte and Missouri rivers and then later to tribes throughout the mid and far west. The result was some 500 paintings and one of the most significant chronicles of Indian life and culture ever produced. Catlin put his paintings on exhibit in the United States and Europe, hoping to make his fortune, but though they were popular, these exhibitions were a financial failure. In an attempt to expand his market, Catlin had a number of his paintings made into prints, issuing them in 1844 as Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Very few first hand images of Native Americans from the beginning of the nineteenth century have survived, and these are among the most dramatic and detailed. Not only do they provide us with much ethnological information, but with their rich color, detail and artistic worth, they are a noble legacy from Catlin’s memorable career.
The original Catlin prints were issued in London in 1844 in Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America. They are hand-colored lithographs, issued in both a deluxe edition, where the image was cut out and mounted on a backing sheet without any text, and in the standard edition, with the title and imprint below.
Catlin’s images were dramatic and authentic, so it is not surprising that they were used by other authors, appearing in two smaller versions within a few years. The first to appear came out just the next year, 1845, in James C. Prichard’s The Natural History of Man, an octavo London publication. These were hand colored prints showing some of the portraits from Catlin’s gallery. Just three years after this, in 1848, another group of octavo, hand-colored prints after Catlin, this time mostly scenes, appeared in a Swedish publication, Nord-Amerikas Och De, Under Ett Attaarigt Vistande Bland De Vildaste Af DerasStammar Upplefvade Afventyr Och Oden…, which was an abridged edition of Catlin’s Letters and Notes.