CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 19 Attacking the Grizzly Bear

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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. 19.
ATTACK OF THE GRIZZLY BEAR
The preliminaries of the hunt for the Grizzly Bear having been settled in the manner described in the preceding plate, and the traces of the animal having been followed up by the party until they are in sight of the game, they are at once in action, as in the present illustration, without the trouble and fatigue of a long desperate race, from the necessity of which they are exempted by the habits of the animals, themselves as always on the hunts, and so indiscriminate as to the kind game that may fall their way, that they are ready to pounce on Man as well as Beast, and are sure to meet him half way.
From the entirely intractable and ferocious nature of this animal, which has defeated every effort to tame or domesticate it; and from its enormous strength, and the length and sharpness of its claws, which are used like those of the tiger, to seize and to tear ist prey, it is feared more than any other animal of the American prairies, and hunters, red or white, generally evade a scuffle with it, except when, as in the present instance, there are a number present, mounted and armed with the lance.

The Grizzly Bear is often killed weighing nearly a thousand pounds; and from the great difficulty of penetrating its vital parts with the arrow, the lance is generally used, as in the present instance; and instead of running by its side, as in the case of the buffalo, the hunter is met, and in that awkward position for giving the fatal blow with the lance, unless by stratagem, which is generally resorted to; exciting the animal to make its rush upon one horse, when the nearest horseman dashes by it, and driving his lance into its side, invites the animal’s fury upon himself; and as it turns its exposed side, receives another blow, until by a succession of these stratagems and deadly thrusts, with all its huge strength and tenacity of life, it falls, though a dear-bought victim to its pursuers, as in the present illustration.

This ferocious animal may be justly said to be omnivorous; yet in those vast regions where the buffaloes graze, it lives chiefly on their carcases, springing upon them in narrow defiles, or from the banks of ravines through which they are passing to obtain water; and whenever it is enabled thus to fasten its claws upon them, is sure to bring them to the ground. In their contentions with Man or Beast they seem to be governed by no discretion, but urged on solely by an indomitable voracity, which sets them at once to devouring their enemy when a partial advantage is gained, by which indiscretion they often easily fall by the hands of enemies to whom their terrible strength might have given far more desperate and disastrous battle.

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