George Catlin’s American Buffalo
George Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River to record what he called the “manners and customs” of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life. His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. On his trips, Catlin recorded the massive herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains of the American West. In chronicling the lifeways of Plains Indian cultures, he captured the central importance of the buffalo in the daily lives of American Indian tribes, from food and shelter to ceremony and naming.
The exhibition and related book George Catlin’s American Buffalo explore Catlin’s representation of buffalo and their integration into the lives of Native Americans through forty original paintings by the artist. In his illustrated essay and commentary on Catlin’s paintings, Adam Duncan Harris, the Petersen Curator of Art and Research at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and guest curator of the exhibition, explores the artist’s representation of the close relationship between Native Americans and the buffalo.
Catlin was a prolific writer as well as a painter. In the 1830s, Catlin wrote that without some greater measure of restraint on the part of advancing settlers, the buffalo would soon be eradicated from the Great Plains. He called for the United States to establish a national park as a sanctuary for both bison and the American Indians he encountered on the plains. His vision came true, in part, in 1872 with the foundation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people. Using Catlin’s own writings, Harris also considers the artist’s role as an early proponent of wilderness conservation and the national park idea, and how that advocacy remains relevant today—to the Great Plains, the buffalo, and land use, including a movement today to create a “buffalo commons.”
George Catlin’s American Buffalo debuts at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. If you are interested in hosting the exhibition at your museum, please visit our traveling exhibitions page for contact information.
Confirmed venues include:
National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (May 10, 2013–August 25, 2013)
Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, California (October 1, 2013–December 29, 2013)
C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana (May 31, 2014–Sept. 14, 2014)
Mennello Museum of American Art in Orlando, Florida (October 4, 2014–January 1, 2015)
Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston Salem, North Carolina (February 12, 2015–May 3, 2015)
A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with an essay and entries on each artwork in the exhibition by Adam Duncan Harris, the Petersen Curator of Art and Research at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. The book is published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London. It is available for purchase for $49.95 (hardcover only).
George Catlin’s American Buffalo is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Generous support for the exhibition has been provided by Mary Anne and Richard W. Cree, and Lynn and Foster Friess. Additional support for the exhibition and the publication was provided by the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund and the Smithsonian Council for American Art. Support for Treasures to Go, the Museum’s traveling exhibition program, comes from The C.F. Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia.