Catlin was born in 1796 and at the age of 36 was one of the first artist to travel west of the Mississippi. In 1839, after spending some seven years in the wilderness he brought back his "Indian Gallery" in an attempt to enlighten the civilized "east" as to the soulful beauty, simple integrity, and determination of Native American peoples, only to be refused museum space by the U.S. government. Smarting from this rejection, he retaliated by taking his work on tour to France and England where the exotic, "noble savage" element struck a responsive cord amongst the Romantic Era artists and intellectual elite, not to mention the merely curious European public.
One of Catlin's most interesting portraits bears the title Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe. Coming from one of the few experts on Native American languages of the time, we have to take his word regarding the exact translation of the Blackfoot chief's name. The image is as authentic as the name. From the braided porcupine quills to the hand-carved, red-stone pipe bowl, the portrait is primitive in neither style or content. The chief radiates a quiet dignity as awe-inspiring as a Gilbert Stuart Washington or a Rembrandt guildsman. This work prompted the French artist Rosa Bonheur to make a pencil and watercolor copy and a London publisher to sponsor an ensemble of some twenty-five hand-colored lithographs with additional text. A year later, he also published Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians. At a time when the Romantic element flourished in both art and literature in Europe, the book instead contained over 300 realistic illustrations so authentic as to be as much anthropology as art.