The Briscoe Western Art Museum will showcase George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio, a set of 19th century color lithographs, in its upcoming exhibition opening Friday, June 23.

Visitors will get the opportunity to see Catlin’s detailed recreation of the Mandan, Sioux (Lakota), Blackfeet, Crow, and other cultures from his observations during his travels from 1832 to 1837. First published in 1844, the hand-colored prints provide one of the purest glimpses into the lives and customs of Native Americans largely untouched by European civilization. The set of prints on display is one of only three known deluxe sets of Catlin’s Portfolio, which includes six additional images alongside the original 25.

“Catlin was the first significant artist to venture into the Western states and depict Natives in their own environment,” said Briscoe President and CEO Michael Duchemin, who curated the exhibition. “He takes us back to a time when movement and activity in the region were much more limited, when the Western experience was a new thing.”

After accompanying William Clark on an expedition in 1830, Catlin spent five years observing and sketching the many native tribes throughout the Great Plains. The drawings from these years reflect Catlin’s self-proclaimed interest in “rescuing from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America” at a time of westward expansion that threatened indigenous livelihoods.

“The Briscoe is devoted to showing artwork related to the entire American West, including beyond Texas, and Catlin is a good place to start because he helped establish a foundation through which the depth and breadth of Western art were developed,” Duchemin said. “His prints can give us an appreciation for the different overlays of Western cultures.”

For added context, the exhibition includes excerpts from the Smithsonian American Art Museum documentary Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians.

After his time in the Great Plains, Catlin toured his works in the United States and Europe, trying to garner enough recognition for the U.S. to buy his collection and keep it for public record. After being forced to sell his collection privately, Catlin traveled Central and South America, working to catalogue the fading presence of America’s native populations.

The Briscoe’s exhibition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio reflects the artist’s desire that the unique cultures he saw be preserved for posterity, for the American public to witness the original men and women from whom the Western spirit was born.

“The West was never just wilderness without people, without activity,” Duchemin said. “There were always people here. Catlin gives us an appreciation for those people and for that earlier time, when bison culture dominated the Great Plains because it was the primary source of life. The identity and inspiration that surrounded bison hunting, the wildlife and landscapes that existed before the railroads and settlements, Catlin saw this and said, ‘Here’s a moment where we can capture it before it’s gone forever.’”

The exhibition is included in regular museum admission and will be on display through Monday, Sept. 4.

The Briscoe’s other summer events include a celebration for National Day of the Cowboy on Saturday, July 22, and the museum’s ongoing Women of the West Film Series, with Cat Ballou on Tuesday, June 20, Meek’s Cutoff on Tuesday July, 18, and The Homesman on Tuesday, August 15.

On Thursday, June 29, from 5:30-7 p.m. the Briscoe will host a signing for Helen Kleberg Groves and her recently published memoir, Bob and Helen Kleberg of King Ranch, which chronicles family history and daily life on the King Ranch through the eyes of the San Antonio/ Kingsville native and only child of Bob and Helen Kleberg.

For more details, visit the Briscoe’s website here.

Tom Bugg

Tom Bugg is a San Antonio native and student of English at Colorado College.