Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Historian could be tougher on artist

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This thought-provoking biography of a 19th-century American painter, writer and lecturer who documented the "vanishing" American Northern plains Indians provides a fascinating story, but takes too light a touch.

Although The Red Man's Bones is an American saga from the time when it was U.S. law and policy to remove the Indians from their ancestral lands, Canadian readers will recognize the broken promises, trickery and exploitation from our own history of "assimilation."

George Catlin (1796-1872) was a self-taught painter who, between 1830 and 1836, lived among Indian tribes "untainted" by "civilization." His "Indian Gallery" is a collection of over 600 paintings of these peoples, their ceremonies, work and games (owned by the Smithsonian Institution since 1874). It's a major source of our popular, collective vision of Indian life.

Author Benita Eisler has written biographies of other 19th-century artists, Lord Byron, Frederic Chopin and George Sand.

She begins Catlin's story with a career highlight. He is 35 when Chief Four Bears of the Mandan tribe permits him to paint their most sacred, mysterious ritual, the annual ceremony of renewal.

The following chapter fast-forwards to Catlin at age 73, "a small gray figure, enveloped in a shabby overcoat," returning to the U.S. after 30 years' exile in Europe.

The remaining 29 chapters describe the extreme and unlikely vagaries of Catlin's personal and professional fortunes from start to finish.

Vibrant colour (and less impressive black and white) reproductions of Catlin's more notable paintings -- portraits, ceremonies and landscapes -- are sandwiched in the text. They capably support the written content and give proof of Catlin's talent.

At times in Catlin's story, source material is scant or non-existent but for his own account. As the biography unfolds, we learn Catlin was crafty in documenting events, people and objects.

Eisler presents a man who will do anything to pursue his art and secure it for the ages. To create it in the first place, and then protect it from persistent creditors, Catlin will betray his professed beliefs, his friends and finally the truth.

If we are to accept what Eisler ultimately concludes -- that we don't know what to believe from Catlin -- what does this say of his art and her biography?

Eisler keeps her lens focused close to Catlin and essentially lets his actions speak.

Catlin espoused respect for nature, but would sketch a bison by killing it slowly and goad it to "rally a new expression" he said, "and sketch him again."

He claimed reverence for Indian spirituality, but would trespass on the Sioux's sacred pipestone quarry, then smash and steal samples of the ceremonial stone. Today it's called "catlinite."

Catlin started a new career at age 42, presenting his Indian Gallery, with commentary, in the U.S. and Europe. Eisler describes how his high-minded commentaries descended into his staging faux Indian actors, then "showing" troupes of Canadian Ojibwa and American Iowa in Britain, France and Belgium. Many of these individuals would fall ill in Europe and die.

Catlin had been opposed to taking Indians abroad for "speculation." It was a crime by U.S. law in any event. But not in Canada.

When a Canadian promoter with a troupe of Canadian natives already in England sought a partnership, Catlin agreed, rationalizing he could help.

Eisler doesn't weigh in to explain or reconcile Catlin's inconsistencies -- she merely sheds light on them. This and her occasional questions and sardonic comments are all that keep Catlin on the hook.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 6:49 PM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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