the dance of the eagle, a painting commissioned by King Louis-Philippe following a performance of dances by George Catlin’s Indian troupe in the Louvre in 1845. oil painting 81 x 65 x 2.5 cm, 2065 g.
© musée du quai Branly, photo Patrick Gries
spring 2006 : ‘from the Far West to the Louvre : George Catlin’s Indian museum’
This number is entirely devoted to George Catlin’s ‘Indian Museum’ that he presented to Paris in 1845: a gallery of portraits painted by this artist, a collection of artefacts, and also representations of Indians, some of whom had made the crossing with him. The publication of Gradhiva numéro 3 in JUne 2006, coincided with the opening of the Quai Branly museum. A happy coincidence: Catlin’s Indian Gallery of 1845, was, in fact, the first real anthropological museum to be opened to the public in Paris – firstly in the musée du Louvre and then in the salle Valentino in Paris.
Consequently, this report is an opportunity to rediscover an ambitious ethnographic and museographic enterprise that was recently restored to the limelight in the United States, but has been undervalued and almost forgotten in France. However, it made a considerable impact in the 19th century. A whole generation of Romantic artists, from Baudelaire to George Sand, taking in Delacroix, Gautier and Nerval, did not fail to take note of the Indians that Catlin was exhibiting. In popular culture too, traces of representations of Indians that go back to this event can also be found, in the popular newspapers and prints. Finally, George Catlin’s ‘Indian Museum’ has earned its place, on more than one account, in a history of the development of the museums on either side of the Atlantic.
Daniel Fabre, ‘Catlin seen from Europe, a, presentation’
Claude Macherel, ‘Genesis of an American Arc for the Indians’
George Catlin, an ‘American painter’? Of course he was, but in what sense? In his time (1786-1872) there were two kinds of mutually exclusive Americans living on the continent: the native Indians and the colonists who were originally from Europe. From his childhood onwards, Catlin was caught between these two currents. Though a Yankee by affiliation, education, and temperament, he received a decisive contribution from Indian sources early one. The boy did not let himself be divided. His story and that of his family, which were linked to the bloody birth-pangs of the American nation, inspired him to take up the challenge of reconciling the opposites. He took up this challenge once he had made his name, and he made a crazy bet that he would effect this reconciliation through the work of his own hands and invention: ‘his’ Indian Gallery. Once he had achieved this, he continued to run it until he was ruined, and went on identifying with it until his last breath.
The wrapping is Western; it’s an Arc for remembrance. The Indian Gallery is a remodelling of the mythical Arc in Genesis, to save its precious contents from the most fatal disappearance of all, oblivion, great outlines of Indian cultures, thousands images of Indians, all as many objects, faces, and customs that the advancing West was soon to overwhelm. But paintings don’t depict this man in his entirely. An independent and obstinate individual, who was desperate for fame but a poor businessman, Catlin was also a hunter, a navigator, an ethnographer, writer, museum keeper, and a producer of live shows. Live Amerindians, of course.
Patricia Falguières, ‘Catlin, painting and the ‘museum industry’ ?
What if Catlin was primarily something else entirely, as he himself stated on several occasions, a historical painter? And a painter of European history? Because this type of spectacle developed around 1800, when British artists were intrinsically required to practise their art within a very particular set of circumstances, which has been forgotten: the collapse of the academic structures that had hitherto regulated the exercise and reception of art. Two routes were thus opened to the practitioners of art at the same time: that of deploying spectacular and novel forms of painting that were used to illustrate transparencies, moving tableaux, panoramas, dioramas, etc. that part of show business that is still known as museum industry: the industry of exhibitions, an interloper aspect of culture in which theatre, attractions and ‘museums’ reactivate the antique economia of the Renaissance Wunderkammer, in the context of the modern metropolis. A phase of Europe’s cultural history that we no longer wish to acknowledge.
Daniel Fabre, ‘the Catlin Effect, 1845-1846’
When George Catlin showed two Indian Portraits from his Indian Museum (which was in Paris from May to September 1845, and then in March 1846), in the annual Salon, he not only aroused widespread curiosity, but produced an immediate effect on a generation of young artists. They found in this ‘museum show’ and these paintings an unexpected resource for constructing a new aesthetic in which the ‘other in art’, meaning all those forms of creation which were excluded a priori from the academic style of painting, played a major part. This articles compares reactions by Théophile Gautier, George Sand, Gérard de Nerval, Champfleury and Baudelaire, who were all keen visitors to the Museum. While they all acknowledged Catlin’s contributions, they did not agree about the meaning of this ‘savageness’ that they had discovered: did it represent a primitive, primordial or essential aspect of art?
Gaëtano Ciarcia, ‘impressions of Europe, Indians in Catlin’s gallery, from the Far West to the Far East’
Between 1839-1848, an itinerant ‘museum’ consisting of ethnographic artefacts and paintings, that had been gathered and created by the American artist George Caitlin, was set up in some of the main European cities. The show was enlivened by the presence of several ‘Red Indian’ troupes, and the gallery has taken its place in the discourse of colonial subjection whereby an authentically ‘savage’ style or performance is already the product of an ongoing process of adaptation. The Indian actors are presented by Catlin as exotic witnesses to ‘civilised’ customs. The theme of cultural shock is represented by their explicit or unconscious involvement in the spectacle of the white man’s domination in America, and which imbues their moral stances – in terms of theatre and the museum. At the same time, in this mobile and permeable ‘Indian reserve’, the exhibition of ‘tradition’ is both an ancient source and modern economic and symbolic resource in which the Indians are investing. The dynamism of these acculturated individuals who were involved in this commercial enterprise explains why it was necessary to present themselves as a folkloric entity.
Frédéric Maguet, ‘paper Indians, between royal reception and popular reception’
In 1845, the itinerant museum that George Catlin put on along with a show by Iowa Indians were immediately reported on in the magazine L’Illustration, and then, after a short delay, illustrated in popular prints. In a century that had experienced the advent of images for all, these two vectors brought about a revolution in the way Amerindians were represented to the French public. This process had already begun with a visit by Osage Indians in 1827, and it produced a profound change in the way visual stereotypes were developed. An image that claimed to be realistic, because it included some features that really had been observed, was to engage in a game of coexistence and substitution with the classic and allegorical image of the ‘American savage’ . Catlin’s images of Indians claimed to be direct witnesses, but were in fact the results of a process whereby features; motifs and situations were rearranged with a view to producing a representation that could be assimilated by the public, one that is still widely active today.
When did Delacroix sketch the Ojibwas ? A conversation between Arlette Sérullaz and Claude Macherel
documents and materials
- George Catlin, "the museum of mankind" (French translation by Patricia Falguières)
- Maungwudaus, An Account of the Chippewa Indians, Who Have Been Travelling among the Whites, (French translation by Claudie Voisenat)
- George Catlin, journal, extracts (French translation by Claudie Voisenat)