Even more than the movies, George Catlin's 19th-century paintings have influenced our present-day vision of how the American Indian looked and lived.

Yet, near the end of his career he wrote: "In my whole life I was never so near starving to death as now."

Catlin spent the final months of his life in the Smithsonian Castle, the guest of the Institution's first secretary, Joseph Henry. The two were trying to convince Congress to purchase Catlin's images of the rapidly vanishing American Indian: tribal chiefs, costumes and everyday scenes of buffalo hunts, dances and religious ceremonies.

But Congress had no interest in buying paintings of people and lands they were swiftly eradicating, and in 1872 Catlin died at 76 not knowing what would become of his life's work.

Ironically, nearly all of Catlin's paintings have ended up in the national collections after all, though he never realized a penny for them. Some 53 of his later works from the National Gallery's holdings of 351 paintings have just gone on view in the East Wing. The story of how they got there -- and how 445 more got into the Smithsonian's collections -- is nearly as fascinating as the paintings themselves.

Catlin began as a lawyer, switching to art after seeing a delegation of Indians in Philadelphia. He later wrote, in one of his many published works, that he had decided to go "among the naked savage," where he "could select and study from the finest models in nature, unmasked and moving in all their grace and beauty." That feeling is reflected in his empathic, ennobling and often romanticized works. He was self-taught, and developed his own realistic, highly detailed style.

Catlin set out in the 1830s, tagging along with explorers to render more than 600 paintings of the countenances and ceremonies of some 50 tribes. In 1837, he took his paintings on the road, traveling up and down the East Coast and to major cities in Europe, exhibiting what came to be known as his "Indian Gallery."

Catlin's success at this point was considerable, and in 1845, King Louis Philippe of France invited him to show his "Indian Gallery" at the Louvre. pHe also commissioned a cycle of 26 paintings depicting "The Voyages of Discovery by LaSalle," enchanting works, more naive than his portraits, which retrace the explorer's steps from Lake Ontario in 1678 -- under dramatically brushed skies and over often icy terrain -- to Louisiana, which LaSalle claimed for France in 1682.

In one work here, LaSalle is shown heroically -- if foolishly -- standing up in a canoe near Niagara Falls, the wintry scene rendered with gusto and great charm. In another painting here, LaSalle's murderer is shown holding the smoking gun -- typical of the naive devices Catlin used to render his narrative. These paintings of the LaSalle expedition, shown for the first time in Washington, introduce the National Gallery show.

The LaSalle paintings, unfortunately, were delivered three days before the 1848 Revolution, and Catlin escaped to London without being paid. His fortunes there began a downward spiral that led to bankruptcy and debtors' prison, and ultimately forced him to turn over his "Indian Gallery" to American millionaire Joseph Harrison in exchange for paying his debts.

Harrison shipped the paintings to his boiler factory in Philadelphia, where they remained until his death. His widow subsequently gave them to the Smithsonian's department of cultural anthropology in 1879. And they have been shown over the years in small groups in various Smithsonian museums. Many are still on view at the Museum of History and Technology, the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery.

Catlin returned to Paris in 1851, both to avoid creditors in London and to recover the La Salle paintings. Between 1852 and 1857, bereft of his "Indian Gallery," the artist undertook several trips into the jungles of South America and up the Pacific coast of North America to begin again recording the life of the Indians. He called these works the "Cartoon Collection" because they were painted on cardboard, rather than on more cumbersome canvas. A selection of these late paintings -- which the artist considered his most "poetic" -- comprise the second part of the National Gallery's show. It ranges from a highly sensuous portrait of an Indian woman with dipping decolletage to the high drama of the bloody but spellbinding "Buffalo Lancing in the Snowdrifts -- Sioux."

The La Salle paintings and the Cartoons were sold to the Museum of Natural History in New York by Catlin's daughters in 1910 for $10,000. Catlin had asked Congress for $120,000. Paul Mellon purchased them in 1965 for an undisclosed price and gave them to the National Gallery.

This show -- which continues through December -- has been selected from those two cycles. It whets, if it does not satisfy, the appetite for a more definitive study of this remarkable painter.