Ostende. November 20, 1864. pp. written on a single folded 8 x 10-inch sheet. Old stain along lower portion of center fold. One small tear in center fold expertly repaired, with no loss. Near fine. Item #WRCAM36674
An interesting and evocative letter from George Catlin regarding his life's work and the future of his Indian paintings. Financial troubles plagued Catlin throughout his life, and in this letter, written to his close friend, artist George Harvey, he relates a plan by which he might sell his collections to the French government. Catlin writes, in part:
"...by the enclosed letter from Paris [not included here, as Harvey apparently returned it to Catlin (see below)] - from the Emperor's house, you will see I have a 'nibble,' a symptom. This is a plan started without my knowledge (as this letter was the first I heard of it) in Paris by Monsieur Mérimeé, a member of Deputies, & Marshall Vaillant, Minister of the Emperor's household, as you see, and, as you will say, 'all the better.' The gentleman who wrote the letter came expressly from Paris & spent a day with me to get my terms, inventory &c of my collections & has returned to Paris, to make his 'Rapport.' I have furnished him the following items - to make them short - for 50,000 dollars I will agree to sell my entire collection of North Amn Indian paintings & Indian manufacturies, as exhibited in Paris (furnishing them the catalogue) together with my collections made west of the Rocky Mountains in 1856 & 1857. I will agree to proceed immediately to N. York and take my collections all to Paris, spend an entire year in finishing up the paintings and arranging them, the gov't - engaging to have ready at that time a hall sufficiently large to show to advantage the whole collections - with a central sky-light, lighting equally and clearly both walls, allowing me to arrange & classify the collections in my own way - the said hall - to perpetuate the collection in such hall [the previous three words struck through] under the title of 'Catlin's N. Amn Indian Collection' and the 50,000 dollars to be paid when the collection is finished and arranged.
"What may grow out of this I can't tell - it may, possibly, result in the sale of my collection, though so un-like my luck, that I don't believe it - yet 'stranger things have happened.' If it should so happen, none can better appreciate than yourself, the satisfaction I should feel in seeing the works of my toilsome life thus treasured up and protected for the world to gaze at after I am off, - and the satisfaction it would afford me of being elevated for a little time, just at the end of my life, above the atmosphere of thieves and blackguards. These gentlemen are setting a high value on my works, but I have not a particle of faith in the Emperor.
"The plan is so far in secrecy, not a soul here knowing anything of it, and I wish you, at present, to keep it close. Be good enough in your next, to enclose the Paris letter."
Catlin closes with a comment on the still ongoing American Civil War: "I have been so anxiously awaiting the news from N. York, and which we ought to have rec'd yesterday or today, that I am almost too nervous to write - I am imagining bloodshed & fires in the northern cities, at the time of the Election & I shall be thankful to Heaven if it has been avoided."
George Harvey (1800-78), a British-born artist who moved to the United States in 1820, was best known for his portraits, landscapes, and "atmospheric views." In 1841 he published HARVEY'S SCENES IN THE PRIMITIVE FORESTS OF NORTH AMERICA in a very small edition. He was one of George Catlin's most loyal friends, and it was Harvey who arranged for the exhibition of Catlin's paintings in New York when Catlin returned to the United States after thirty years abroad. Harvey wrote a very sympathetic appreciation of Catlin for the NEW YORK EVENING POST in December 1872 the day after Catlin died, in which he proposed a plan to permanently exhibit Catlin's Indian paintings in New York.
As it turned out, Catlin's paintings were not sold to the French government, nor were they permanently exhibited in New York. Much of his work was saved by the intercession of Philadelphia locomotive tycoon Joseph Harrison, eventually finding its way to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art. Any substantive letter from George Catlin, especially one so clearly relating his ongoing frustrations with marketing and placing his work, is rare in the market.