The artist George Catlin (1796–1872), who based his entire body of work—including over 500 paintings done in the 1830s & several books recounting his travels—on the theory of the Vanishing American, provided a vivid description of the process at work: "In traversing the immense regions of the Classic West, the mind of a Philanthropist is filled to the brim with feelings of admiration; but to reach this country, one is obliged to descend from the light & glow of civilized atmosphere, through the different grades of civilization, which gradually sink to the most deplorable vice & darkness along our frontier; thence through the most pitiable misery & wretchedness of savage degradation, where the genius of natural liberty & independence have been blasted & destroyed by the contaminating vices & dissipations of civilized society. Through this dark & sunken vale of wretchedness one hurries as through a pestilence, until he gradually rises again into the proud & heroic elegance of savage society, in a state of pure & original nature, beyond the reach of civilized contamination … Even here, the predominant passions of the savage breast, of treachery & cruelty, are often found, yet restrained & frequently subdued by the noblest traits of honor & magnanimity,—a race of men who live & enjoy life & its luxuries, & practice its virtues, very far beyond the usual estimations of the world … From the first settlements of our Atlantic coast to the present day, the bane of this blasting frontier has regularly crowded upon them, from the northern to the southern extremities of our country, &, like the fire in a mountain, which destroys every thing where it passes, it has blasted & sunk them, & all but their names, into oblivion, wherever it has traveled."
New Jersey born George Catlin (1796-1872) is reknowned for his extensive travels across the American West, recording the lives of Native Americans. In 1818, Catlin practiced law in Connecticut & Pennsylvania, but he abandoned his practice in 1821 to pursue painting. Catlin enjoyed modest success painting portraits & miniatures, but he longed to be a history painter. In 1828, after seeing a delegation of western Indians in the east, he had wrote that he had found a subject, "on which to devote a whole life-time of enthusiasm." In 1830, Catlin made his initial pilgrimage to St. Louis to meet William Clark & learn from him all he could of the western lands he hoped to visit. Catlin traveled the frontier from 1830 to 1836, visiting 50 tribes west of the Mississippi, from present-day North Dakota to Oklahoma, creating an astonishing visual record of Native American life. He had only a short time to accomplish his goal—to capture with canvas & paint the essence of Indian life & culture. In that same year, the Indian Removal Act commenced the 12-year action that would remove the remaining Indians from land east of the Mississippi. Within a few years, the they would be decimated by smallpox; with in a few decades, the number of buffalo would drop from millions to a few thousand, & the Native Americans' high prairies would be crosshatched by the plow & the railroad.
As a child growing up in Pennsylvania, Catlin spent many hours looking for American Indian artifacts. His fascination with Native Americans was kindled by his mother, who told him stories of the Western Frontier & how she was captured by a tribe when she was a young girl. Following a brief career as a lawyer, he produced 2 major collections of paintings of American Indians & published a series of books chronicling his travels among native peoples. Claiming his interest in America’s "vanishing race" was sparked by a visiting American Indian delegation in Philadelphia, he set out to record America’s native people. Catlin began his journey in 1830, when he accompanied General William Clark on a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River into Native American territory. During later trips along the Arkansas, Red & Mississippi rivers, as well as visits to Florida & the Great Lakes, he produced more than 500 paintings. When Catlin returned east in 1838, he assembled his Indian Gallery, & began delivering public lectures. In 1841, Catlin published Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, in two volumes, with about 300 engravings. Three years later he published 25 plates, entitled Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, and, in 1848, Eight Years’ Travels and Residence in Europe. From 1852 to 1857, he traveled through South & Central America and later returned for further exploration in the Far West as recorded in Last Rambles amongst the Indians of the Rocky Mountains & the Andes (1868) & My Life among the Indians (1909). The nearly complete surviving set of Catlin’s Indian Gallery painted in the 1830s is now part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection. Some 700 sketches are in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.