A facsimile edition of 950 copies from Abbeville Press, produced in collaboration with the Library of Congress. Through The Folio Society’s special partnership with Abbeville Press, a small number of these magnificent large-scale portfolios of 31 plates is now available at an exclusive preferential price.
In 1830, George Catlin, a young lawyer from Pennsylvania, set off for St Louis with letters of introduction to William Clark, the legendary explorer. At the time, St Louis was a frontier town reliant on the fur trade with Native Americans. Catlin’s expressed intention was to become the first painter to capture life among the Plains Indians – a world already under threat. From 1832, and for the next few years, Catlin travelled thousands of miles, from Minnesota and Montana south to Texas, the Gulf States and as far east as South Carolina, depicting the Indians he met in his paintings and journals. In the words of author Peter Matthiesson: ‘Taken together, Catlin’s works constitute the first, last and only “complete” record of the Plains Indians ever made at the height of their splendid culture, so soon destroyed by traders’ liquor and disease, rapine and bayonets’.
George Catlin and contemporaries such as Charles Bird King and Karl Bodmer created some of the most important sociological, historical and ethnological studies in American history. Catlin was allowed to observe many of the ceremonies and games in the Indian villages, which enabled him to build a remarkably detailed picture of the tribes' religious and social lives. He wrote, ‘The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustration, are themes worthy of the lifetime of one man.’ The visual record he produced of his travels during the 1830s is one of the very few we have of a vanished way of life.
By the end of 1836, Catlin’s collection of paintings and artefacts had grown enormously. He decided to exhibit parts of it, beginning in New York City. Thus in 1837, over 300 oil paintings of Indians from the many tribes Catlin had visited, among them the Mandan, the Comanchee and the Sioux, were presented to the public. The exhibition toured the eastern United States and then moved to London in 1839, where it opened to huge and enthusiastic crowds at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. His London exhibition remained open for six years.
In 1844, Catlin conceived of another, more intimate way of presenting his life’s work. He chose a few of his paintings to be copied, hand-painted and published in book form. This was a hugely ambitious, expensive project, as evidenced by his contemporary John James Audubon’s 12-year endeavour to reproduce his famous ornithological pictures. To produce the hand-painted drawings from his original illustrations, Catlin turned to lithography, invented in Germany in around 1796. The cost and labour-intensity of the process required him to choose discerningly.
Lithographic printing was capable of producing astonishingly detailed images. Lines were drawn with a greasy crayon or ink on a piece of flat, polished limestone soaked with water. By pressing an ink roller to the surface, those sections covered in water repelled the ink; those covered in grease attracted it. Thereafter, the image formed by the grease and ink on the limestone could be transferred to paper. Each plate was then individually hand-coloured. The London edition of the North American Indian Portfolio came out in late 1844 with 25 plates. Catlin then produced a further six plates. The following year an edition comprising the 25 original plates was published in New York City by James Ackerman.
This facsimile edition reproduces the plates from the New York edition, renowned for the vibrancy of its colours, along with the six additional plates Catlin published in London. It has been made possible through a collaboration between Abbeville Press, one of the world’s leading fine art publishers, and the Library of Congress, which owns both original sets in their Rare Book and Special Collections Division. The most exacting techniques in the art of papermaking and colour printing were employed in the production of this work.
The plates were meticulously printed in continuous tone collotype at one of the few remaining printing houses capable of using this traditional but time-consuming process to create near-perfect facsimiles. To match the original hand-coloured lithographs, each plate was analysed by experts to determine the number of colours needed to reproduce it most accurately. Only such an artisan's trained eye can determine which colours to use and in which order to print them. Each plate in this facsimile required at least eight colours, and several make use of even more.
The plates are printed on a natural finish, acid-free paper from one of Europe's finest mills, and they bear a unique mark authorised by the Library of Congress and Abbeville Press to distinguish this edition. They are accompanied by Catlin’s own notes describing each painting. An illuminating essay on the life and art of George Catlin written by James H. Gilreath, American history specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, provides background on the extraordinary techniques used by Catlin to produce his drawings. It becomes clear why the North American Indian Portfolio is considered the greatest artistic achievement of Catlin’s long career.
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