Monday, March 24, 2014

The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman by Benita Eisler

After writing about Lord Byron, Frederic Chopin, and George Sand, writing about artist and ethnographer George Catlin seemed to me at first glance a departure for biographer Benita Eisler. Catlin was an American who grew up along the Pennsylvania-New York state line and ventured west to paint hundreds of portraits of Native Americans during the time when President Andrew Jackson was forcing them from their tribal lands into unfamiliar territory west of the Mississippi River. While Catlin attracted some short-term critical acclaim in the 1830s America, Byron, Chopin, and Sand were key players in 19th century European culture. Then I saw on page 327 of The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman that George Sand and her son interviewed Catlin and his band of Iowa Indians for her newspaper. I saw then that Eisler's characters' lives intersected in Paris, where Catlin spent many years in exile and increasing debt. Of course, Eisler would be interested in the tragic figure of George Catlin.

Eilser's book was well-timed, for there had not been any full-length adult treatments of Catlin's life in decades. Interest in him has recently grown among readers of Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan, in which the author says that Catlin and photographers Mathew Brady and Edward Curtis were a tragic threesome, men of great artistic impact and no ability to manage their finances.

An interesting subplot in the book is what happens to Catlin's vast collection of paintings and artifacts. They were almost lost but are now considered national treasures.

With great characters and compelling story, many biography and history readers should try The Red Man's Bones.

Eisler, Benita. The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman. W. W. Norton, 2013. 468p. ISBN 9780393066166.

No comments: