“An unconquerable mind in a frame of iron”
Forgotten paintings by George Catlin, who saw the West unspoiled, turn up again to recall the marvels that unfolded before the eyes of the heroic French explorer
The annals of American exploration, studded as they are with action and adventure, hold no story more heroic, in the exact, Homeric sense of this much abused word, than that of the Sieur de la Salle, fighting every obstacle which civilization, savage man, and nature could devise to penetrate to its end the valley of the Mississippi. No one has described it better, although his book is largely forgotten, than Francis Parkman. No artist, as one may see in the portfolio beginning here, has illustrated it with such faithful charm as George Catlin, the tireless traveler who recorded the Mississippi and the Plains before the white man had greatly altered them.
In the mid-1840’s while traveling in Europe with his exhibition of Indian paintings. Catlin met and caught the fancy of King Louis Philippe, who had floated down the Ohio and Mississippi himself, in a small boat, while an exile from France between 1797 and 1800. The King commissioned a series showing La Salle’s expedition in this former French dominion, against the backgrounds both men knew so well; together they sat down and planned the scenes. In time Catlin delivered them, as stipulated, to the Louvre—just before the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848. The monarch fled and Catlin was never paid. Recovered with difficulty five years later, the series formed part of a disappointing exhibition of Catlin’s work in 1870 the often childlike simplicity of his style was not esteemed highly in his own lifetime. With a large collection of his paintings, the La Salle series was purchased in 1812 by Ogden Mills for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But this special set—originally 28 in all—was never exhibited until recently, when it was displayed at the Kennedy Galleries in New York. American Heritage is indebted to both the museum and the galleries for permission to reproduce this series and it takes the opportunity to accompany it, beginning on the next page, with parallel quotations (in boldface) from Parkman’s classic history, together with other longer excerpts which constitute the book selection for this issue.