CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 02. Buffalo Bull, Grazing

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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. 2
Buffalo Bull Grazing
This noble animal, which is the largest and most formidable of the ruminating species, existing in North America since the extinction of the Mastadon race, has been the most useful in contributing to Man's subsistence; and consequently most probably, allowed the longest the inhabit with him those vast and almost interminable regions of forest and prairie where the Great Spirit designed them to roam together.

By this portrait of a bull, which is a very faithful one, it will be seen that the American Buffalo is a very different variety of the Ox species from the buffalo of the eastern continent, and probably closely allied to if not exactly the same as the European Bison. These animals, which once were spread in vast herds over nearly all of North America, from the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Atlantic, but now confined to a much narrower limit near the base of the Rocky Mountains, extending from the Mexican provinces in the south, to the latitude of Hudson's Bay in the north, are in size somewhat above the ordinary bullock, and their flesh of a delicious flavor, resembling and quite equal to the best of beef.

From the noble bearing and fine proportions of this animal, one instantly admits his gigantic strength and estimates his splendid utility to man, provided he could be made to bear the yoke. Almost endless efforts have been made by eager and avaricious man to enslave this noble animal and humble him to the drudgery of the plough; but with the like result as with the noble men of the same free country (almost the only living exceptions); who, if they lack the merit of meekness and docility, have had and maintained the virtue of courage to contend for their lives with civilized men and the sternness to resit his slavery.

The flesh of the buffalo, which is easily procured, furnishes the Indians of those tracts of country over which they still roam, the means of a wholesome subsistence, and they live almost exclusively on it; converting the skins of the animals, their horns, their hoofs, and bones to the construction of dresses, shields, bows, etc.

The buffalo bull is perhaps one of the most formidable and frightful looking animals in the world when excited to resistance (as will be seen in some of the various phases through which he is to be passed in the following chapter of accidents and disasters that befall him), his long and shaggy mane hanging in great profusion over his neck and shoulders and often extending down quite to the ground.

The colour of the buffalo, during the first summer, while a calf, is precisely that of a red calf in cultivated fields; when when shedding its first hair it takes another of dark brown, which colour it carries during its life. The horns are short, but in the male, very large, with the peculiarity that they have but one turn; i.e. they are a simple arch, without the least approach to a spiral form, like those of the common ox or goat species.

The female buffalo is always much smaller than the male and invariably distinguished by the peculiar shape of the horns which are much smaller and more crooked, their points turning more in towards the head.

One of the most remarkable peculiarities of the buffalo is the formation and expression of the eye, the ball of which is very large and white, and the iris jet black. The lids of the eye seem always to be strained quite open and the ball rolling forward and down so that a considerable part of the iris is hidden behind the lower lid while the pure white of the eyeball glares out over it in an arch in the shape of a moon at the end of its first quarter.

The Buffaloes are gregarious but not migratory. They are found grazing in immense herds, from the Mexican borders to the fifty-fifth degree of north latitude in all months of the year, including the coldest of winters and in these northern regions gaining their food by browsing on the limbs and buds of the frozen shrubbery and pawing for grass through the snow; affording for the Indian sportsmen by thrilling subjects for the chase, in that dreary season, as will be shown in some of the subjoined hunting scenes.

 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