CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 03. Wild Horses, at Play

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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. 3.
WILD HORSES, AT PLAY.
Next in importance to the buffalo, for the use of man, is the horse, which is found joint-occupant with the Indian and buffalo over most of the vast plains and prairies of America as yet unoccupied by cultivating Man. These, though not aborigines, may still have been, by the inscrutable design of Providence, placed in this country for the benefit of man, and we therefore find him in almost every part of North America mounted upon their backs, his faithful and attached friends and companions in deadly war and in the excitements of the chase.

I believe that these noble animals were first introduced to the American continent by the Spanish invaders of Mexico and that they have strayed away from their masters and taken wild pasturage, having in time stocked the prairies as we now find them, to the fifty fifth degree of north latitude. Like the buffaloes, they graze over the vast plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and congregate in large families or bands oftentimes to the amount of several hundreds together. The fact is a very remarkable one, that although these animals have escaped from the familiar hands of men, they should be everywhere found the most rapidly flying from his approach, the shyest animals of the prairie; detecting their enemy, Man, by extraordinary power of the eye at a much greater distance than any other animal of the country and generally when in motion running several miles before they stop.

By several times forcing myself into close company with these bands on the prairie, on a fleet horse; and by often deliberately reconnoitring them with a good glass, as well as from the many thousands of them I have seen in the use of the Indians, I have found them to be generally small and delicate of limb, but tolerably fleet and a band together, completely and most pleasingly mottled; often presenting as many varieties of colours and forms of marks as a kennel of hounds. They are certainly animals capable of performing wonderful feats and of enduring great fatigue and like the buffalo, subsist entirely on the grass of the prairies and that in very cold as well cold as well as in southern latitudes.

I have found that in the northern and western prairies of America, where the Indian has not been degraded by the withering proximity of avaricious White Man, he has been decidedly improved in his independence and manly and noble bearing by the use and companionship of the horse. No fact is more apparent than this, to the traveller through the Indian tribes of America, nor anything more readily admitted by all than the powerful and graceful manner in which these people by a lifetime of practice, ride and manage the Horse. They are cruel masters, yet no people set a higher value on the merits of a good horse, nor any perhaps who take greater care, or exercise greater skill, in cultivating and maintaining in them a bold and hardy spirit. The Indian's cruelty to the horse is confined to the occasional incredible gallops which they force them through with great sternness but which they are paid for by a life chiefly of freedom, and exemption from the first cruelty that is practiced by the hands of civilized man the more than barbarous cruelty of the knife.

The range of country to which the sagacity of the wild horses has driven them before the advance of their enemy Man, as with the buffaloes is now confined to a strip of the prairie country near the base of the Rocky Mountains and in the view of the band here presented, is also given a faithful portrait from Nature justly illustrating the character of that part of the American prairies with a slight glimpse of the perpetually snow-capped summits of parts of the Rocky Mountains in the distance, which are often seen in clear weather, with great distinctness over a range of sixty or seventy miles.

 

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