CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 10 Buffalo Hunt, White Wolves attacking a Buffalo Bull

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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. 10
Buffalo Hunt. White Wolves attacking a Buffalo Bull

By this plate it will be seen that the buffaloes have other enemies than man to contend with, and that hunting is an occupation not exclusively the province of the Indian in those wild regions. There are several varieties of the Wolf species on the American prairies, the most numerous and formidable of which is the White Wolf, found in great numbers in a high latitude and nearer the Rocky Mountains. These animals are equal in size, in many cases, to the largest Newfoundland dog; and, from the whiteness of their hair, appear, at a distance on the green prairies, much like a flock of sheep, and often are seen to a number of fifty or a hundred in a pack; and in this way following the numerous herds of buffaloes from one end of the year to the other, gorging their stomachs with the carcases of those animals that fall by the hands of hunters, or from sickness and old age. Whilst the buffaloes are grouped together, the wolves seldom attack them, as the former instantly gather for combined resistance, which they effectually make. But when the herds are travelling, it often happens that an aged or wounded one lingers at a distance behind, and when fairly out of sight of the herd, is set upon by swarms of these voracious hunters, which are sure a last to torture him to death, and use him up at a meal.

During my travels in these regions, I have several times come across such gangs of these animals, surrounding and torturing an old wounded bull, where it would seem from appearances that they had been for several days in attendance, and at intervals desperately engaged in the effort to take his life. On an occasion when one of my hunting companions and myself were returning to our encampment, with our horses laden meat, we discovered at a distance, a huge bull encircled by a gang of white wolves; we rode up as near as we could without driving them away, and halting within pistol-shot, halting pistol-shot, had a good view, where I sat for a few moments upon my horse and made the sketch for this plate, in my note-book; after which we advanced, and the sneaking gang withdrew to a distance of fifty or sixty rods, when we found to our very great surprise, that the animal had made desperate resistance until his eyes were entirely eaten out of his head; the gristle nose was mostly gone; his tongue was half demolished, and the skin and flesh of his legs torn almost literally to strings. In this “tattered and torn” condition the poor old veteran stood, bracing up in the midst of his devourers, who had ceased the hostilities for a few minutes, in sort of parley, recovering strength and preparing to resume the attack in a few moments.

In this group some were reclining, to gain breath, whilst others were sneaking about and licking their chaps in anxiety for a renewal of the attack; and others, less lucky had been crushed to death by the feet or the horns of the bull. I rode nearer to the pitiable object, as he stood bleeding and trembling before me, and said to him “Now is your chance, old fellow, and you had better be off.” Though blind and nearly destroyed, he seemed to recognize a friend in me; when he straightened up, and trembling with excitement, dashed off at full speed in a straight line over the prairie. We turned our horses, resuming our march, and having advanced a mile or more, looked back, and on our left saw the ill-fated animal again surrounded by his tormentors, to whose insatiable voracity he unquestionably soon fell a victim.

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