CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 18 The Bear Dance

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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. 18.

THE BEAR DANCE.

Next in importance to the buffalo hunts, and not less exciting and spirited in its character, is the mode of hunting the Bear. Several varieties of this bold and ferocious species are found joint occupants with Man, the buffalo, and other animals, though the various wild latitudes of America; and, like the others, their skins and their flesh contribute largely to man's comfort subsistence.

The bear, so different in its habits and haunts from the buffalo, is entrapped and hunted by the Indians in a greater variety of modes than the buffalo, though their hunting excursions for this animal are often on horseback; and when in pursuit of the GRIZZLY BEAR, the most formidable and dangerous animal of the brute creation to be met in the prairies and forests of America, the hunters deem it most prudent to be mounted on their horses' backs, instead of trusting to their own legs in contention with so awkward and dangerous an enemy.

As in their preparations for buffalo hunting, already described, the superstitions of the Indians make it necessary to appeal, by their mysteries, to supernatural aid protection; so while preparing to start on a hunt for the grizzly bear, they dance and sing to the invisible Spirit supposed to watch over the destinies of this animal. This grotesque and amusing ceremony is called the "Bear Dance;" and all who wish to participate in the pleasures and honour of the hunt, must unite in the dance, which is often continued for several days together previous to the start, with the beating of drums, shaking of rattles, and uniting their voices, invoking the aid and protection of the “Bear Spirit,” which they think holds somewhere an invisible existence, is sure to be present on all such occasions, and must needs be consulted before they can count upon a reasonable prospect of success.

This droll masquerade is one that I witnessed while in a Sioux village on the Upper Missouri River, where one of the medicine men, who seemed to be the leader of the dance, placed over his person the entire skin of a bear, and led off the dance as he was peeping through the skin, which formed a mask that hung over his face. Several others in the dance wore masks over their faces, made of skins of bears' heads, while each one wore a patch of the bear's skin and hair tied around his ankle. In the curious plight they all tilted off in rapid succession, following in a circle, raising feet equally in their jumps, and that in perfect time to the frightful chants of their voices; whilst all were closely imitating the habits of the animal by the motions of their hands, representing the bear in motion, or (by the hanging of their paws) sitting upon its hind feet and looking out for the approach of an enemy.

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