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The Red Man's Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman Hardcover – 30 Aug 2013


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (30 Aug. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393066169
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393066166
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 0.4 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,502,783 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

"Engrossing...An elegant and skillful writer, Eisler captures Catlin's many roles and notes how, even today, he remains a 'contentious' figure." "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 "Marvelous ... wonderfully nuanced and compelling ... Ms. Eisler's book is far and away the best biography of Catlin in existence." -- Jonathan Lopez "Pitch-perfect... [Eisler] is a skilled writer, showing both flair and economy." -- Tim Bross "[A] lively and well-researched biography."

About the Author

Benita Eisler's subject is the life and work of artists, and their worlds. She has written on the Romantics, Byron, Chopin, and George Sand, and is the author of a dual biography of early modernists Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. She lives in New York City.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Mick Gold on 11 Oct. 2013
Format: Hardcover
He was one of the men who invented the Wild West. Catlin's paintings are familiar to everyone who has looked at the tragic history of the Native Americans. Benita Eisler's marvellous biography reveals George Catlin to have been a strange misfit. Explorer, author, artist, anthropologist, showman, Catlin threw himself into a dozen different roles without achieving lasting success.

In just a few years from1832 to 1836, Catlin travelled west of the Mississippi, feverishly painting and sketching to create the material that would be the basis of his life's work. He was the only artist to see and record O-kee-pa, the astonishing ritual of male initiation practised by the Mandan tribe, suspending young men from skewers through their pectoral muscles. "Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell the world," wrote a shaken Catlin.

Yet while Catlin gazed with wonder on the richness, beauty and savagery of Native American culture, he was also uncomfortably aware that he was part of the process that would extinguish it. "For they recede as we approach, we shall occupy their hunting grounds and tread upon their graves. There is a curse in our touch that withers them. Wherever we come in contact, they perish or are contaminated," wrote James Hall, an authority on the Indian tribes who grasped the significance of what Catlin had achieved.

Catlin proceeded to turn Indian culture into show business. In London and Paris he organized huge exhibitions of paintings and artefacts of native culture. When interest in the art waned, Catlin teamed up with P. T. Barnum to present troupes of dancing Iowa and Ojibwa Indians to audiences who also flocked to see Siamese twins and Tom Thumb dressed as Napoleon.
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By lyn on 12 Dec. 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a christmas present for my husband it arrived in good condition so it is fine, will not be opened till christmas
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 9 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Impressive biography of the artist who recorded the vanishing Native American 11 Oct. 2013
By Mick Gold - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
He was one of the men who invented the Wild West. Catlin's paintings are familiar to everyone who has looked at the tragic history of the Native Americans. Benita Eisler's marvellous biography reveals George Catlin to have been a strange misfit. Explorer, author, artist, anthropologist, showman, Catlin threw himself into a dozen different roles without achieving lasting success.

In just a few years from1832 to 1836, Catlin travelled west of the Mississippi, feverishly painting and sketching to create the material that would be the basis of his life's work. He was the only artist to see and record O-kee-pa, the astonishing ritual of male initiation practised by the Mandan tribe, suspending young men from skewers through their pectoral muscles. "Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell the world," wrote a shaken Catlin.

Yet while Catlin gazed with wonder on the richness, beauty and savagery of Native American culture, he was also uncomfortably aware that he was part of the process that would extinguish it. "For they recede as we approach, we shall occupy their hunting grounds and tread upon their graves. There is a curse in our touch that withers them. Wherever we come in contact, they perish or are contaminated," wrote James Hall, an authority on the Indian tribes who grasped the significance of what Catlin had achieved.

Catlin proceeded to turn Indian culture into show business. In London and Paris he organized huge exhibitions of paintings and artefacts of native culture. When interest in the art waned, Catlin teamed up with P. T. Barnum to present troupes of dancing Iowa and Ojibwa Indians to audiences who also flocked to see Siamese twins and Tom Thumb dressed as Napoleon. In London, Catlin tried to sell the idea of a Museum of Mankind, explaining with bizarre but accurate logic that as the British Empire expanded, "the native tribes are wasting away" and so deserved a museum to preserve their art for posterity.

In this strange tale, Catlin comes across as a larger than life figure, shot by both sides. In his own lifetime his plan to sell his Indian Gallery of paintings to the Smithsonian was denounced by American politicians who refused to spend one cent on portraits which glorified savages. Meanwhile Catlin was cursing his bad luck as his unfortunate expatriate tribes, encouraged to dance before royalty in London and Paris, kept dying of smallpox and consumption.

He spent his last years in Brussels, deaf, reclusive, still making ambitious plans, before a less than triumphal return home to die in Jersey City. Catlin's life was largely forgotten until - awakened by Vietnam - young Americans looked with more critical eyes at the history of their own country and at the fate of the first Americans. Westerns began to tell the story from a different point of view, and films like A Man Called Horse and Dances With Wolves painstakingly re-created Catlin's pictures of Native American culture.

Unsuccessful in business, Catlin's paintings today sell for millions of dollars and are seen as crucial images of America's history. In Paris, Baudelaire acclaimed Catlin as "our guide among the savages", while George Sand left a vivid account of an Iowa chief dancing in the Salle Valentino. And Robert Lowell provides the title of this meticulously researched book, writing "Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones/ And fenced their garden with the Redman's bones."
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Disappointing: far too much speculation and insinuation 20 Jun. 2014
By David Arthur Jan Reynolds - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
As with so many modern biographers, Eisler is far too immodest about her own abilities to divine fact from silence. Her insinuations without any evidence about Catlin being a homosexual are a disgraceful self-indulgence for an historical work. She seems to create a psychological portrait of Catlin based on modern psychology and then use it as a basis for further assumptions about the motives and mentality behind his actions. Guilt, for example, is an emotion Eisler divines and then posits, without evidence, as an explanation for a number of Catlin's actions.
As is also common with the polymath biographer, who doesn't have the benefit of long familiarity with a historical subject, Eisler makes too many small historical errors. This is grating and makes one wish for a Catlin biographer who has made more than a brief stay in this subject and who is more concerned with the source analysis and less interested in his or her own speculations.

She also gives too much credence to Catlin's doubters, giving his south American trips the dismissive treatment of a handful of skeptical pages and then claiming that it does not really matter if he made it all up. Given Catlin's strenuous efforts to clear his name from Schoolcraft's smears that he had previously invented the O-kee-pa ceremony, this is a poor cop-out; to throw doubt on his veracity but then make the sly post-modern claim that the truth of it is not the important part. Catlin documented for posterity; it very much matters what is true.

I should end on a positive note. Some reviews here have criticized Eisler's writing; this is unjustified. Her writing is fluid and interesting; accusations that it is turgid are hard to believe and are far from the truth.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Catlin: Showman! Adventurer! Great Artist? 17 Sept. 2013
By Philio Stoane - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
While the author presents what appears to be a deeply researched portrait of
Catlin's life as an adventurer and showman, it cannot be said that she brought the same level of scrutiny and expertise (odd, given her past works) to Catlin's work
as an artist. Yes, we owe a great debt to Catlin as an ethnographer, but what exactly makes his art, as art, distinct and important? That question never seemed to be answered. In fairness, perhaps the author, in writing for a general audience never intended to answer (or even ask?) that question. Still, something seems lacking in the analysis of Catlin's work.
16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Disappointed with the author's repeated "gay" allegations against this famous artist... 27 July 2013
By book lover - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about 400 pages. I have read the the first 8 chapters to date, about 115 pages. Although I have some other books on George Catlin, I have not read them yet, and this being the newest, I figured it would contain the latest research and so I moved it to the top of the list. Catlin was certainly an interesting man, driven to do something different (that is, to record in words and pictures the life and customs of the Native Americans before they disappeared due to the advance of civilization). He wasn't the best artist, though he had his moments. From what I have read so far, it seems that his wife took a backseat to his artistic vision and Catlin was almost never home. Now for some specifics. Eisler states that Catlin may have carried on a gay relationship with a younger man named John Chadwick. I haven't gotten far enough into the book to see why she posits this (however, with a little help from the index I did take a brief look ahead, but my search came up empty of any hard evidence... so the jury is still out on this point until I finish the book). Now when it comes to writing a book, it's hard to avoid errors. In most cases the author knows what is right, but somehow these embarrassing mishaps occur anyway (believe me, I know). Anyhow, with that in mind, I did come across some errors that I will point out here:

p. 60
Julius Catlin (George's brother) died on September 21, 1828, not early September.

p. 102
Eisler states that Lewis and Clark reached Fort Union on their journey up the Missouri in 1804. Impossible; Fort Union was not built until 1828. She must have meant that Lewis and Clark reached the location where Fort Union was later constructed.

p. 111
Fort Pierre was in present-day South Dakota, not Idaho.

p. 442/n. 404
The correct date for the unveiling of Coleman's bronze statue at Green-Wood Cemetery is Saturday, July 28, 2012.

Here are a couple of instances where I couldn't quite make sense of what the author wrote:
p. 30
Catlin's father wrote to George: "I am pleased that you at length resolved to attempt portraits, tho' you had convinced me last year that miniatures were as valuable. Most painters of eminence have worked at portraits and history, few have confined themselves to miniatures." From this statement, it seems clear that Putnam (George's father) is stating that George will not only paint miniatures, but portraits, too. But on page 34 (bottom) Eisler writes: "Despite his father's urging to think bigger [that is, portraits], George persisted in working within the smaller format, and for the next three years he continued to be listed in the Philadelphia directory as 'Miniature Painter.'" But Putnam wrote that George had resolved to attempt portraits. If he then changed his mind, it is not stated.

p. 41
Catlin had no close friendship(s) while in Philadelphia. But what about John Neagle, his friend and roommate? See p. 33. Also, on p. 48, Eisler writes that the two men may have had a "professional rivalry." Then she states that Catlin was not at Neagle's wedding in May 1826, sort of implying that the two men were not close. But then she further states that Neagle and his new wife spent time with Catlin in New York after they were married. Seems to me that Catlin was probably invited to the wedding and just couldn't make it.

Some more points:
1) For a book that is about an artist, it is surprisingly light on images. And the second image section is all black and white.

2) There is no bibliography. The books are listed within the footnotes.

3) And related to the footnotes, the main text does not contain any notes. However, there are notes in the back related to each chapter. What the author did was extract a few words from the main text and repeat them in the notes section, then follow each instance with the source of information. It cleans up the look of the main text (no little numbers floating around at the end of each sentence or paragraph). This method has potential, but I noticed that a lot of details in the main text are not attributed at all in the notes section.

Despite anything I have written above, I am enjoying the book and look forward to reading more of it. Catlin led an interesting life.

Update 7-31-2013
I am now up to page 180, getting near half way through the book. There have been maybe two or three more mentions of Chadwick. Each time there is absolutely no evidence of a gay relationship between Catlin and Chadwick but the author keeps making insinuations. Why? I must say that I have absolutely nothing against gays/lesbians (not for religious reasons or any other). I find it perfectly natural, just like in the animal kingdom (of which, really, we're a part). But what is being written here really feels forced. Let me give you an example of the type of evidence being presented in this book: Let's say that your spouse went out shopping for the day and you stayed home. Let's say that you had a friend of the same sex visit you while your spouse was out that day. So basically in Eisler's eyes, you may be carrying on a same-sex relationship. As for the rest of the book, sure you'll learn a lot about Catlin, but I'm not sure this is the best book to start with. Maybe read his Letters and Notes first and maybe even something by Dippie and/or McCracken. I'm not happy writing that, but if I could go back in time a couple of weeks, that's what I would do. I don't wish to give the impression that the book is terrible, it's not, but I also can't give it a hearty recommendation (and not just for the Catlin-Chadwick issue).

Update 8-1-2013
More on the Catlin-Chadwick "relationship":
p. 180
Catlin: "During the march, we were subject to no military subordination. We galloped about wherever we were disposed... and running our noses into every wild nook and crevice... we travelled happily, until our coffee was gone and our bread; and even then we were happy upon meat alone." To this innocent statement, Eisler writes: [George and Joe] enjoyed the protection of the dragoon regiment, while doing as they pleased -- alone.
Ah, yes, they were alone on the prairie, and therefore most likely gay. Of course; and good thing the Comanches didn't surprise them in the act while out on the open prairie. Well, maybe with the Comanches prowling around, they only held hands. Anyhow, this type of insinuation leads me to wonder, is this a history book or a Harlequin romance novel? She keeps making allusions, but never presents the "hard" evidence. I'm afraid to mention here that the famous Western artist Charles M. Russell lived for a while with a hunter named Jake Hoover. Hmmm. What does that mean?

Update 8-4-2013
Still more allusions to Catlin and Chadwick being gay lovers. Then I got curious about Eisler's other books, so I looked them up. Here is part of a 1-star review from her book about Frederic Chopin (I sense what may be a common thread in her research and writing):
As a Chopin fanatic, I have done a lot of reading about his life. "Chopin's Funeral" is a terrible portrayal of this composer's personality and life. Ms. Eisler turned Chopin into a whining fruitcake, when in reality he was quite the opposite. Also, Ms. Eisler credited several myths about Chopin as fact (such as his homosexuality, when there is no proof whatsoever that Chopin was gay).

So there you have it. Another reader for a completely different book has the same complaint as me, that is, the author seems to manufacture homosexual allegations; in fact, she seems somewhat obsessed with it. For Eisler, it just may be standard practice. I feel bad for my comments as I know the author must have worked very hard, but when you start calling people gay who are no longer here to defend themselves, well, that's kind of cruddy. Now if you had something significant to back your case, that would be different. But really, there is nothing here except one author's imagination running overtime. And I wish to repeat something I stated earlier, I have no problem with same-sex attraction. It's fine with me. But in this case, the accusation certainly feels "created" to serve the author's purpose.

Update 8-9-2013
I must say, that with Chadwick out of the way, the last 100 pages have been much better and more interesting.

Final comments, 8-13-2013:
Well, I'm on vacation and brought the book with me to finish up, which I did earlier this evening. Because I am not home, I stopped taking notes about points of interest and/or contention (of which there were several; yes, I should have continued taking notes). One criticism is that the author too often neglected to give dates (even a year would have been helpful) and therefore I sometimes had a hard time following the story. Again, I wish I took notes so that I could be specific about errors (or, what I believe to be errors). Did I learn about George Catlin? Well, certainly; it's sort of inescapable considering this is his biography. By book's end it was clear that Catlin was quite the tragic figure and that he based a good part of his (adult) life on a relatively short time out West. He tried to milk it for all it was worth and it never quite worked out. He was also somewhat at fault for his lack of financial success and inability to sell his paintings to the United States government. I finished the last page with some sympathy for Catlin, but not too much (again, he was partially to blame for all of his problems). As for the book itself, I didn't feel much of a connection (some books you finish and remember fondly, but I have too many negative feelings about this book). Still, it will remain on my bookshelf. If you read it, hopefully your experience will be different than mine.
A must for Native American book collectors. 12 Dec. 2013
By Olan Moore - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
George Catlin is my favorite artist. I have everything that he wrote or was written about him. This well written book again depicts his struggles to accomplish his goal of recording the Native American Indian in his natural world before the invasion of white people. A must for all Native American book collectors.
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