Reich, Susanna. 2008. Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin.
I was not that familiar with George Catlin prior to reading Painting the Wild Frontier. (Though I had a vague recollection that he was a painter of Native Americans in the nineteenth century.) The book was informative and well-written. Reich was not afraid to ask the difficult questions. Catlin was not a saint. And while his work is important (in many ways) the issue of whether or not his work was exploitative of American Indians cannot be ignored. His belief system can't be ignored. Just how did the man feel about his subjects? Did he see them as his ticket to fame and fortune? A way to make a buck? How sympathetic was he to the plight of the American Indians? Just what was he setting out to accomplish?
George Catlin's life in many ways was tragic. He never quite reached his goals. He never had enough money or enough fame or enough prestige. He enjoyed a bit of success, but then he fell out of the spotlight and was never quite able to get it back. Catlin was a selfish man. His obsession with his work, his career kept him from being a good husband and kept him from being a good father. I would say it even kept him from being a fair husband and father. His neglect and disinterest in his family is disturbing in many ways.
Reich's book acknowledges Catlin's strengths and weaknesses. It is a flawed portrait of a man that Reich shares with her readers. A very human one.
The book itself is nicely done. It includes some black and white work and some full-color ones as well. For those interested in the back matter--it is well researched. There are end notes for each chapter, a time line, a selected bibliography, and an index.
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews
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