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George Catlin’s American Buffalo

Exhibit explores the integration of buffalo in Native American life.

ABOVE: Buffalo Cow Grazing on the Prairie. BELOW: Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances.

ABOVE: Buffalo Cow Grazing on the Prairie. BELOW: Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances.

PHOTOGRAPHY: courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum/Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr.

 “If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me from visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America,” George Catlin once proclaimed. His determination and passion fueled five journeys into the Western territories between 1830 and 1838, during which the former lawyer turned self-taught artist encountered more than 50 tribes and produced hundreds of portraits, vignettes, and landscapes.

George Catlin’s American Buffalo, a new traveling exhibition that begins at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, and finishes up a reverse eastward journey at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, presents a unique view of the artist’s ambitious Indian Gallery. Through 40 original paintings paired with quotes from his letters, essays, and speeches, the exhibit explores both the integration of buffalo in Native American life and Catlin’s role as an early proponent of wilderness conservation. 

“No one else can match the dual effect of his painting and writing,” says Adam Duncan Harris, Petersen Curator of Art and Research at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and guest curator of the exhibition. “You can trace the national park movement to Catlin and what he wrote in the 1830s when he called for a ‘magnificent park’ that would save the land, the buffalo, and the Native Americans’ way of life.”

Traveling Exhibition Venues

May 10 – August 25, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, Wyoming, 800.313.9553, www.wildlifeart.org; October 1 – December 29, Palm Springs Art Museum, Palm Springs, California, 760.322.4800, www.psmuseum.org; October 4, 2014 – January 1, 2015, The Mennello Museum of American Art, Orlando, Florida, 407.246.4278, mennellomuseum.com; February 12, 2015 – May 3, 2015, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, 336.758.5150, www.reynoldahouse.org. George Catlin’s American Buffalo is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

As one of the first painters of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi, Catlin believed it was his duty to record the Native lifestyles of the Plains — a mission he knew must be accomplished quickly as the plow, the railroad, and a remarkable increase in hide hunters threatened the massive buffalo herds that roamed the Great Plains and, consequently, the Native Americans who depended upon them.  

While impressive in scope and detail, Catlin’s body of work has not been immune from criticism in terms of its veracity and skill level. Yet Harris advocates, “For his time and his own abilities, he did a remarkable job creating these images for documentary purposes as well as pure artistry.” Indeed, Catlin’s works are still consulted by experts researching Native culture. “He was able in many of his portraits and scenes to give an immediate sense of what he saw,” Harris says, “and while he finished his work in the studio, they still maintain a real vibrancy that reflects his being there.” 

That vibrancy resonates throughout the exhibition — as does the critical role the buffalo played in Native life. “Visually, you get an instant sense of the massive importance of the buffalo in Native American life,” Harris says. “Catlin was interested in different methods of buffalo hunting, how buffalo hides were used for various clothing, and how buffalo appeared in numerous ceremonies — and all of this is documented in his paintings.” 

The combination of Catlin’s artwork with his eloquent writings, Harris notes, leaves the viewer with a deeper understanding of how important conservation continues to be. “It’s not too late,” he says. “People are working even now toward a more sustainable method of using the Great Plains.”

 

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