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The Red Man's Bones

George Catlin, Artist and Showman

Benita Eisler (Author)

Overview | Inside the Book

The first biography in over sixty years of a great American artist whose paintings are more famous than the man who made them.

George Catlin has been called the “first artist of the West,” as none before him lived among and painted the Native American tribes of the Northern Plains. After a false start as a painter of miniatures, Catlin found his calling: to fix the image of a “vanishing race” before their “extermination”—his word—by a government greedy for their lands. In the first six years of the 1830s, he created over six hundred portraits—unforgettable likenesses of individual chiefs, warriors, braves, squaws, and children belonging to more than thirty tribes living along the upper Missouri River.

Political forces thwarted Catlin’s ambition to sell what he called his “Indian Gallery” as a national collection, and in 1840 the artist began three decades of self-imposed exile abroad. For a time, his exhibitions and writings made him the most celebrated American expatriate in London and Paris. He was toasted by Queen Victoria and breakfasted with King Louis-Philippe, who created a special gallery in the Louvre to show his pictures. But when he started to tour “live” troupes of Ojibbewa and Iowa, Catlin and his fortunes declined: He changed from artist to showman, and from advocate to exploiter of his native performers. Tragedy and loss engulfed both.

This brilliant and humane portrait brings to life George Catlin and his Indian subjects for our own time. An American original, he still personifies the artist as a figure of controversy, torn by conflicting demands of art and success.

Book Details

  • Hardcover
  • July 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-393-06616-6
  • 6.6 × 9.6 in / 480 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“Engrossing…An elegant and skillful writer, Eisler captures Catlin’s many roles and notes how, even today, he remains a 'contentious' figure.” — Publishers Weekly

“A sparkling biography of the artist and impresario George Catlin, so much an American original that he lived most of his life abroad. Rich in exceptional feats, odd twists, and wrong turns, Red Man's Bones captivates completely.” — Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Cleopatra: A Life

“Through her impeccable scholarship, Benita Eisler masterfully illuminates the tragic life of 19th Century artist George Catlin, America's forgotten portraitist of Native American life. The Red Man's Bones is that rare kind of 'warts and all' history, showing the real Catlin while successfully making the case for his elevation to the pantheon of great American artists.” — Amanda Foreman, author of A World on Fire

“An elegant, thoughtful new biography.” — Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe

“Marvelous … wonderfully nuanced and compelling … Ms. Eisler's book is far and away the best biography of Catlin in existence.” — Jonathan Lopez, Wall Street Journal

“Pitch-perfect… [Eisler] is a skilled writer, showing both flair and economy.” — Tim Bross, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch

“[A] lively and well-researched biography.” — New Yorker

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