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    Description

    George Catlin offers the U.S. House of Representatives his "extensive and unique collection of Indian portraits"

    George Catlin Autograph Letter Signed "Geo. Catlin." Two pages, 8.25" x 10.75", Paris, April 1, 1846. This is Catlin's retained "Copy of Memorial sent to Congress 1st April" (written in top left corner) and addressed "To the Hon. The Speaker & Members of the House of Representatives" (written at the top of the letter). This letter from Catlin's pen eloquently expresses his determination to preserve his body of work known as his Indian Gallery produced during the previous decade, described in this letter as containing "nearly 600 paintings of portraiture and customs of 48 different tribes . . . and the most extensive and valuable collection of costumes, weapons, and other Indian manufactures in the world . . . [and] 40 full length figures, completely costumed, the heads of which are facsimile casts from the life, of distinguished Indians on the frontier of the United States, and coloured to nature."

    The production of the Indian Gallery had cost Catlin much labor and money. When he wrote this letter, his main concern was to keep the collection together, but he also wanted to recover his large investment in the project. So he wrote this letter to the U.S. House of Representatives to "Represent . . . his extensive and unique collection of Indian portraits . . . with the confident belief that the collection would be eventually appropriated and protected by the government of his own country." Catlin's asking price was $65,000. This letter reads in part as written:

    "The Subscriber, a citizen of the U. States & now in Paris, begs leave most Respectfully to Represent That his extensive and unique collection of Indian portraits, customs, costumes, weapons &c, the extent and interest of which is familiar to most of your honourable body, and which cost your memorialist the entire labour of eight years of his life, and an expenditure of more than 20,000 dols. in collecting, is now in Paris, and under the flattering patronage of the King has for more than two months past occupied a spacious Hall in the Louvre for the private views of His Majesty & the Royal Family. That in making this collection the subscriber has received no government or individual aid, but entirely unaided, has pursued & completed his design, supported the whole time by the ambition of procuring a full & complete pictorial history of a numerous and interesting race of human beings rapidly sinking into oblivion, encouraged with the confident belief that the collection would be eventually appropriated and protected by the government of his own country, as a monument to a race of people who will soon have yielded up the whole of their country and their existence to the cultivating mass. . . . That the collection contains nearly 600 paintings of portraiture and customs of 48 different tribes which he has visited, and the most extensive and valuable collection of costumes, weapons, and other Indian manufactures in the world; to the latter department of which several valuable collections have been added by purchase, in England, and the paintings have been ultimately finished, and all arranged in appropriate & durable frames. That the collection will also contain when fully arranged 40 full length figures, completely costumed, the heads of which are facsimile casts from the life, of distinguished Indians on the frontier of the United States, and coloured to nature. Your memorialist further represents - that during the whole time he has been labouring to make this collection, he has been stimulated by the ambition of making it the nucleus of a Museum of Mankind, to contain, eventually, the records, resemblances, & manufactures of all the diminishing races of native tribes of the human family on various parts of the globe. . . . That in the Congress of 1837 & 1838, a Resolution was offered in the House of Representatives by the Hon. Mr. Briggs of Massachusetts, for its purchase, which Resolution was referred to the committee on Indian Affairs, of which committee the Hon. Mr. Bell of Tennessee was Chairman. That Committee prepared a unanimous report in favour of the purchase, but which report, too near the close of the session, was not acted upon. Your humble memorialist would therefore most respectfully propose at this time, (as the certain means of restoring the collection to the United States, and of securing the ambitious exertion of its author) the sale of the entire collection, as above described for the sum of 65,000 dollars, the same sum as proposed to the Committee in 1838."

    George Catlin (1796-1872) is best known for his paintings of American Indians, which were the result of five journeys he made in the 1830s into the American West. He presciently saw that the westward expansion of white settlers across North America would soon result in the end of Native American ways, so he documented the people by painting them in their natural environments - the first person to do so. When the project was finished and he was deep in debt, Catlin tried to gain attention to the plight of America's Indians - and to recoup some of his investment - by displaying his work in European cities (when he wrote this letter, he was "in Paris, and under the flattering patronage of the King [Louis Philippe I]"). He spent much time and effort to obtain the support of the American government and because this letter is part of that effort, it is significant and may be the most important letter that Catlin ever wrote. The result of Catlin's request, however, was disappointing: the House of Representatives did not buy the paintings and Catlin sold his collection to a Philadelphia industrialist named Joseph Harrison. But Harrison kept the Indian Gallery together and after his death, his widow donated the entire collection to the Smithsonian Institute in 1879, where it resides today. The letter is toned paper with smoothed folds with light wrinkles. Light show-through of ink (very slightly affecting legibility), otherwise the letter is in clean condition. The letter Catlin sent to the House of Representatives is in the National Archives, we offer a retained copy identical in text and entirely in Catlin's hand.


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    Auction Dates
    September, 2011
    12th-14th Monday-Wednesday
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