Paintbrush & Peacepipe: The Story of George Catlin, and George Catlin and the Old Frontier
Two books, Paintbrush & Peacepipe: The Story of George Catlin, by Anne Rockwell and George Catlin and the Old Frontier, by Harold McCracken, cover almost exactly the same subject matter and differ most significantly in tone and style according to the vastly different audiences to which each is directed.
The first book, Paintbrush and Peacepipe, 86 small pages in length, with 8 brief chapters and 15 illustrations, is written for children. By comparison, the second book, George Catlin and the Old Frontier, with its 209 oversized pages might seem a vastly superior presentation of George Catlin's biography. The artbook format of McCracken's work, with its 36 color and 118 black and white illustrations, is far more authoritative and detailed in its representation of the scope of Catlin's art. Yet, Paintbrush & Peacepipe, in it's minimalist manner is a highly educational and effective piece of work.
Paintbrush & Peacepipe and George Catlin and the Old Frontier both present the story of the life of George Catlin who lived from 1796-1872. Catlin, an American painter and writer, born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, created work that provides an unequaled source of knowledge of the American frontier and the Indians who were its original inhabitants. Catlin began his art career painting portraits in the eastern United States. Son of a prosperous farmer, George Catlin was educated to be an attorney at law. In 1823, however, he gave up the practice of law and established himself, with very little training, as a portrait painter in Philadelphia. Catlin continued to paint portraits in Washington, D.C. And Albany, New York until 1829 after which, having developed a fascination with Native Americans and their vanishing customs, he became more and more involved in a lifestyle of travel back and forth between civilization and the unsettled western area of the country. Catlin visited and lived among tribes all throughout the west, painting portraits, and writing detailed accounts of their ways. With St. Louis as his jumping off place he traveled the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, from Dakota territory to Montana, from the headwaters of the Mississippi to Mexican territory in the southwest, on riverboat or in birchbark canoe, often alone, to visit the some forty eight tribes including: Assiniboin, Sioux, Mandan, Blackfoot, Konsa, Ojibway, Crow, Choctaw, Osage, Comanche, Ioway, Blackhawk and more. He painted individual and group portraits, village scenes, everyday activities, buffalo hunts, rituals, work and play. Catlin also accumulated a vast collection of Native American artifacts which he exhibited, along with his paintings in eastern cities, stimulating not only popular interest in Native American culture, but also considerable controversy.
He became something of a showman by exhibiting groups of Native Americans to audiences in the United States and Europe, promoting their worthiness as dignified human beings in contrast with popular public opinion that insisted on their savage nature. Catlin received little honor during his lifetime, but now his paintings hang in the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. And The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is proud of their collection of his work. All this is the basic biographical information of both Paintbrush & Peacepipe and George Catlin and the Old Frontier.
One major difference in the two books is in the telling of how Catlin's interest in Indians began. Rockwell begins her book with an childhood meeting between young Catlin and an Oneida hunter that makes a deep impression and initiates Catlin's lifelong obsession with Indians. This anecdotal incident is not mentioned by McCracken who depicts Catlin's interest in Indians as springing from a meeting with a tribal delegation from the far west in New York. McCracken does briefly mention that Catlin was influenced by his mother's retelling of her own youthful capture and release by benevolent Indians at the time of the famous "Wyoming Massacre" in 1778, another moving circumstance included by Rockwell. The youthful incidents portrayed by Rockwell becomes a vivid pivot point in a boy's life that will stick dramatically in the minds of children. McCracken prefers scholarship and presentation of the full range of Catlin's work to drama.
Paintbrush & Peacepipe: The Story of George Catlin, by Anne Rockwell, published in 1971, is aimed at older children and young adults, aged possibly 8 or 9 through teens. The book details how George Catlin originally became interested in Indians as a young boy of 9. Rockwell tells in simple, moving prose how Catlin borrowed his brother's gun intending to shoot his first deer only to watch it being shot by a Native American. After at first being fearful of the Indian, he was surprised to feel a bond forming. "Something he saw in the Indian's eyes made him feel strangely sure that he and the Indian could be friends" (Rockwell 5). One of Rockwell's intentions is to portray Indians as "good" people rather than the savages that most Americans believe them to have been. In the early years of the nineteenth century, as Catlin was growing up, Indians were treated badly, maligned and murdered for simply being Indian. Through his first Indian friend, On -O-Going-Way, an Oneida, young Catlin learns both to honor and respect Indians and their ways and to question the opinions and cruelties of his own people.
Rockwell uses her narrative description of Catlin's life to show how small minded and prejudiced the general white man's viewpoint was. That Native Americans were fine and decent human beings is the lesson learned by the young Catlin who would grow up to make painting sympathetic portraits of Indians his life's work.
Paintbrush and Peacepipe is a biographical narrative presented as chapter book that will hold the attention of readers of all ages. At the beginning of each chapter and interspersed throughout the narrative are adaptations, in sinopia pencil, of sketches and portraits made by Catlin while dwelling among the various groups of Indians. These simple illustrations serve well to convey various aspects of Indian life, with dignity, as well as to reveal the respect Catlin felt for his subjects. The engaging format includes a compelling description and background about the subject of the painting.
Rockwell, herself a painter of Indian portraits, shares with her readers not only her personal enthusiasm for Native Americans, but her deep admiration for Catlin's work and attitudes.
Rockwell is to be admired for her concise prose and direct, straight forward, blunt style in which she details on a simple level clear, obvious and appropriate to children, what the evils of civilization and whiskey did to the Indians. She also emphasizes for her youthful audience the worthiness of Catlin's intention to preserve Indian culture. He went into their home territory to "record them with his paintbrush before they vanished" (Rockwell 16). One of the more appealing descriptions is of Catlin painting in the midst of a buffalo herd disguised as a wolf, a trick the Indians themselves taught him. Rockwell details how Catlin grew more and more obsessed with painting the Indians and collecting artifacts of their way of life, allowing her readers to see how a life can be formed. The anecdotes included such as tales of medicine bags, the Thunderbird myth, and how pipestone, from which peacepipes were made, came to be known as catlinite, are selected artfully by Rockwell to appeal to children,
For her young readers Rockwell emphasizes how "Catlin was convinced that to know the Indian was to love and admire him" (Rockwell 60-61), but goes on to reveal how he became disillusioned when white men, taking him to be a liar and a fraud, preferred to believe tales of savagery, filth, and atrocities. A central theme for Rockwell is her emphasis on how, rather than broken treaties and a legacy of whiskey and disease, Catlin hoped that his fellow whites would offer respect and dignity to their Indian brothers. She also, of necessity, must report how he failed, however, to save either the Indians or the buffalo. Rockwell diligently reports how Catlin repeatedly tried to convince the American government to buy his collection of Indian artifacts. She tells how, f ailing in this too, he took all 8 tons of it to England.
George Catlin and the Old Frontier, by Harold McCracken is a documentary style book meant to detail Catlin's art and life in a much more thorough manner for adult readers and students of both Native Americans and frontier days. The illustrations in both color and black and white are fine reproductions presenting a broad survey of Catlin's work, and thoroughly demonstrating how Catlin was indeed the "Documentarian of a Race," which is the title of McCracken's first chapter. The biographical information presented is definitive and complete compared to the much less complex information presented in the child oriented Paintbrush and Peacepipe.
McCracken's intention in creating this book is more disinterested biography and exposure of Catlin's artistry to the public than is Rockwell's. While Rockwell strives to impress young people with the sincerity…