CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 05 Buffalo Hunt, Chase

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

PLATE No. 5.
BUFFALO CHASE

In this picture we have the Indian mounted on his wild horse, which he has captured in the mode described above; and thus converting it to his use as the means of procuring his subsistence. For want of the fleetness and fangs of the ferocious brutes, Man has wisely been endowed with reason and invention which have enabled him to use the legs of the horse, and to construct deadly weapons, as the means of holding his ascendancy over all the beasts of the forests, and of appropriating so much of their substance as is necessary for the clothing subsistence his family.

The wild horse is the swiftest animal of the American prairies; and the Indian, from his well-trained horse's back, with his sinewy bow and lance, easily deals death to the quadrupeds of the country; having, from a lifetime practice, rendered himself quite equal in the chase, to the most skilful of hunters; and in war, to the most efficient cavalry lancers bowmen world.

Here is seen the mode in which the Indian generally approaches the Buffalo, always on the right (or off side) of the animal, that he may throw his arrow or strike with his lance, to the left.  The death is usually produced when the animal and the horse are at the fullest speed; and most often, as in this case, when the hunter has forced his victim from the herd, when he pursues it with less danger to himself and horse, and with, much more certainty of producing the death. The Indians, in their native state, generally ride, in war and in the chase, without saddle, and always without bridle.

They make, and use on most ordinary occasions, a very good saddle; but when preparing to go into this desperate chase, they halt half a mile or so from the herd, without danger of putting them in motion; when each hunter throws off his shirt, quiver, head-dress, shield, and whatever else of his dress that may become an incumbrance or hindrance to the free use of his limbs; carrying in the left hand, firmly clenched, his bow, and some half dozen arrows, with his heavy and cruel whip attached to the wrist of his right arm. In this disrobement he puts off the saddle, and often lashes a bear or other skin, with the girth, to his horse's back, astride of which be throws himself, feeling more secure as he is nearer his horse's back, by which both the horse and his rider derive great benefit from feeling each of others motions; and in this plight he dashes off at full speed, the rein in his hand, which is but a small halter of raw hide or of horsehair, fastened around the the under jaw of the horse, and hanging loosely on the neck. The Indian has little use even for this, after he has directed the attention of his horse to the animal he wishes to pursue, and has separated it from the herd; for such is the  extraordinary training of most of these little horses that they will with certainty bring their rider alongside without the guidance of the rein; allowing the Indian to fix his arrow upon the string, and to place himself in the proper position for giving the deadly shot, which is done at the instant the horse is passing the animal, and that generally within the distance of four or five paces, as is seen in this plate.

The very great disparity in size between the horse and the buffalo, in this instance, which is much more than is usual, nevertheless correctly illustrates the actual difference  that often occurs between an Indian pony of thirteen or fourteen hands, and o huge bull, as is here represented, weighing, as they sometimes do, 1800 or 2000 pounds.

In giving the arrow under these circumstances, the bow is pulled with great suddenness, and the arrow flies with terrible and almost incredible effect, generally striking the heart or the region of it, so that death is most commonly produced by one arrow; and if the first fails to enter deep enough a second one is sent in an instant, and the huge animal, with a few leaps more, tumbles down and is dead in a few moments. After the fatal arrow has flown, the horse, which has passed the animal, is often, guided to another and another, until in a similar manner several will get their deaths from a handful of arrows, all of which are dealt out in a minute or two of time. After this, the halter is used to "pull up,” and in fact, is of little other use, the Indian generally guiding the horse, when guidance it necessary, by leaning quite forward, and suddenly, but gently, striking the right hand over one or the other of the horse's eyes, bending its course with ease and with grace, in any direction.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins “Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the “Indian Gallery”, Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com