by Anthony Harrison
Chances stand that you may not recognize George Catlin’s name, but you still know his work. While he was no giant like Picasso, Pollock or Dali, Catlin’s impact is still felt to this day; with his paintings, Catlin romanticized the image of the Old West as much as John Wayne or John Ford.
Reynolda House Museum of Modern Art’s newest exhibition, George Catlin’s American Buffalo, presents 40 of Catlin’s works focused on the king of the Great Plains: the eponymous American buffalo. Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the touring exhibit emphasizes the animal’s majesty and provides insight to how deeply bison affected the lives of American Indians in the Midwest.
Following the enactment of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, Catlin followed Gen. William Clark in 1830 on a diplomatic mission with the tribes of the northern plains. Fascinated by American Indians and their cultures, Catlin soon based himself in St. Louis, going on five more expeditions between 1830 and 1836, covering the Great Plains from the top of North Dakota all the way south to Texas. All the while, he painted hundreds of portraits of American Indians and their homelands, illustrating their rich lifestyles and environments.
Catlin especially recognized the importance of the plains bison. Half of the paintings in George Catlin’s American Buffalo explicitly feature the creature, either as a lone subject or part of a Western tableau. One of Catlin’s most famous works, “Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie,” perfectly captures the bison and its grandeur. Though seemingly dumb with its crossed eyes, the bull stands powerfully with literal virility. Catlin’s wispy touches in the windswept mane and tail evoke movement and motion, and the buffalo dwarfs the rolling pastel hills in the background.
In many ways, “Buffalo Bull” epitomizes Catlin’s talents as a great American painter and a unique, even prophetic artist. Before Europeans began charting the course of modern art, Catlin championed certain prototypical composition techniques suggestive of later movements, decades before they came into vogue.
Catlin’s paintings, especially the landscapes, often appear like a work of impressionistic realism, perhaps due to his technique of painting from memory aided by sketches. “View in the Grand Detour, 1900 Miles above St. Louis” serves as an exemplar. Rusty sweeps of cloud streak across the sky. Green hills undulate and fat, reddish swabs of erosion accent the tan bluffs. The buffalo themselves are brown blobs, and three anonymous American Indian hunters creep towards them — hunched, barely distinguishable forms.
In another painting, “Buffalo Dance, Mandan,” Catlin portrayed a tribal dance meant to bring buffalo in times of scarcity. The Mandan hunters float in a dreamlike blank plane, wearing buffalo masks and dancing in a circle, crouching down and miming the hunt. The painting drips with surreal action and calls to mind the Primitivism art movement of the early 20th Century.
Catlin’s portraits of American Indians remain the most conventional of his work, but they still apply old styles in new ways. Reverence flows from Catlin’s portraiture, dispelling the old idea of the “noble savage” and imparting a regal air. “Black Rock, a Two Kettle Chief” encapsulates the form, and Catlin depicts the chief standing as strong as a buffalo bull; Black Rock’s bold stance and stoic expression, framed by a headdress of eagle feathers and buffalo horns, clearly denote his status as a man of respect.
George Catlin’s American Buffalo shows with great effect the respect an underrated American master had for the American frontier. His images of the Old West cemented the view of the time and region which persist to this day, not just in American eyes, but the world over.
In an effort to popularize his cause of securing the future of the West and the buffalo, Catlin took his work on a nationwide and European tour. He lamented the possibility of the buffalo and American Indians being wiped from existence. Despite his fears, both survive still.
Thankfully, his work survives, as well.