CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 11 Buffalo Hunt, Approaching a Ravine

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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. 11.
BUFFALO HUNT. APPROACHING IN A RAVINE.
This plate represents the familiar mode of procuring meat, practised by all the voyageurs on the Missouri and other streams of that country, who run their canoes ashore where the buffaloes or other animals are discovered grazing banks, and cautiously stealing up under cover of a bank or other protection, shoot down the fattest of the herd. In one of my homeward voyages I descended the Missouri river the distance of 2000 miles in a canoe, having but my two hired men, “Bogard and Ba'tiste,” to paddle, whilst I steered with the steering-oar. Nearly the whole of this distance was through a wild and uncultivated country boundless green fields, inhabited only by various Indian tribes, and the wild animals that graze upon it. Our beds were every night made in the grass, amongst the lilies and other wild flowers that everywhere spot and enamel the beautiful grassy banks of that mighty and ugly river. During the most of that voyage our food was simply buffalo meat, without bread of coffee; and in the illustration is given a very good account of one of the instances in which Bogard, Ba'tiste, and I stepped ashore, under a beautiful range bluffs, near the mouth of the Cannon-ball River, with a view of replenishing our larder. We had for many miles been in sight of a fine herd, reposing in a beautiful vale; and after silently landed our little craft under the bank, we cautiously ascended the sloping side of a ravine, which brought us with-in pistol-shot of the unsuspecting herd, when at the whispered signal, “ready, fire!” each rifle brought down its victim, and our canoe was soon lined with the choicest cuts of their flesh, and again adrift upon the current. The landscape view here given is strictly a portrait, and well illustrates much of the peculiar scenery on the banks of the Upper Missouri.

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