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Gradhiva n°3

June 2006

144 pages, 16 pages in color

18 €

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« Shon-ta-ye-ga » - Little Wolf. Work commissioned by King Louis-Philippe following a dance performance by George Catlin's Indian ensemble at the Louvre in 1845. Oil painting 81 x 65 x 2.5 cm, 2065 g.

the dance of the eagle, a painting commissioned by King Louis-Philippe following a dance performance 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 by Patrick Gries

Gradhiva n°3

spring 2006: ‘from the Far West to the Louvre: George Catlin’s Indian museum’

This issue is entirely devoted to George Catlin’s ‘Indian Museum’ which 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 the third Gradhiva issue 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 and including Delacroix, Gautier and Nerval, did not fail to notice the Indians that Catlin was exhibiting. In popular culture too, traces of representations of Indians inspired by this event can also be found, in popular newspapers and prints. Finally, George Catlin’s ‘Indian Museum’ has more than earned its place within the history of the development of 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 on. 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 outrageously wagered that he would effect this reconciliation through his own work and notably through 'his' Indian Gallery. Once he had achieved this, he continued to run it until he went bankrupt and was identified with it until his death.
The concept of the gallery space plays on Western traditions by reinterpreting the mythical Ark of Genesis in order to save its precious contents from the most fatal disappearance of all: oblivion. The contents express the main aspects of Indian culture and portray the images of thousands of Indians, objects, faces and customs that the advancing West would soon conquer. But the paintings do not provide a full-scale portrait of Catlin. An independent and obstinate individual, 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 - as he himself stated on several occasions - primarily a historical painter? And a painter of European history? 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: i.e. the collapse of the academic structures that had hitherto regulated the exercise and reception of art. Two routes were thus simultaneously opened to art practitioners: that of deploying spectacular and novel forms of painting that were used to illustrate transparencies, moving tableaux, panoramas, dioramas and the part of show business that is still known as the museum industry: the industry of exhibitions, an interloper aspect of culture in which theatre, attractions and ‘museums’ reactivate the antique economy 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. In this ‘museum show’ and in these paintings, they found 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 the ‘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, gathered and created by the American artist George Caitlin, was set up in some of Europe's main 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, in which an authentically ‘savage’ style or performance is the product of an ongoing adaptation process. The Indian actors are presented by Catlin as exotic examples of ‘civilised’ customs. Their explicit or unconscious involvement in the spectacle of the white man’s domination in America impacts their moral stances - expressed theatrically or in the museum - and creates a culture shock. At the same time the exhibition of ‘tradition’ in this mobile and permeable ‘Indian reserve’ is both an ancient source and a modern economic and symbolic resource in which the Indians were investing. The dynamism of these acculturated individuals 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 presented by George Catlin 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 had truly been observed was to coexist with, and substite itself to, the classic and allegorical image of the ‘American savage’ . Catlin’s images of Indians claimed to be direct representations, but were in fact the results of a process in which 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)