CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 08 Buffalo 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. 8.
BUFFALO DANCE.
This grotesque group, though not strictly a hunting scene, is so closely allied as to often considered by the Indians indispensable to their success; and consequently deemed by me, of importance here, in conveying to the reader a full account of buffalo hunting.
Among a people so ignorant and superstitious, the success of their hunts wars is often attributed to the strict observance of several propitiatory modes of singing and dancing to the Great (or other) Spirit; soliciting his countenance, and promising to give to him, (which they always do,) by sacrificing, the choicest pieces of the animal slain in their hunts. The wild and deafening songs sung on these occasions are exceedingly curious, and called MEDICINE (Mystery) Songs. All tribes have their medicine songs peculiar for the hunting of animal they choose to go in pursuit of, and by singing these songs they conciliate the supposed invisible deity or spirit presiding over these animals’ respective destinies, and who must necessarily be consulted in this way.

These Medicine Ceremonies, which are always conducted by their Medicine (or Mystery) Men, are almost invariably performed with more or less adherence to all the usual forms before starting on a hunting or war excursion; and however great the success may be, it is easily attributed observance of these forms; and if disappointment or even disaster, attend the expedition, it is equally easy and convenient to attribute it culpable defect or omission in their Medicine operations.
For the purpose of buffalo-hunting nearly every wigwam, in most of the tribes, has one or more masks of the buffalo, (the skin of the animal’s head, with the horns remaining on,) which the Indian places on his head when he is called upon to join in the Metai or Medicine, for buffalo hunting. When the hunters have arranged these masks upon their heads, they often sing and dance for days together before they get permission to start, from their oracle, (the Doctor or Mystery Man,) and his guarantee for their success, which often depends much upon the degree of liberality with which they bestow the necessary presents upon him. To the same means, also, will they often resort in times of great scarcity, at seasons when the buffaloes seem to desert the vicinity of their villages, which is often the case, threatening them with hunger starvation. The Doctors, in such emergencies, assemble together with the chiefs in consultation, and it is decided very gravely that the buffalo-dance commenced, “to make buffaloes come;) and when such is the case, the dance is kept constantly going, both night and day, by the young men “relieving each other,” stepping out of the ring as they become fatigued and others dancing in, in constant rotation, until “buffaloes come” i.e. until their sentinels in the vicinity of the village, or others, bring in the news that buffaloes are near, when the dance ceases, and preparations are made for the hunt.

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