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GEORGE CATLIN'S AMERICAN BUFFALO

October 1st – December 29th, 2013
Palm Springs Art Museum

George Catlin’s American Buffalo exhibits 40 paintings dating from 1832 to 1848 from the artist’s original “Indian Gallery.” The exhibition includes 11 full-length portraits of Plains Indians and 29 paintings of his observation of buffalo and their integration into all aspects of Native American life. These paintings are from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

George Catlin’s American Buffalo exhibits 40 paintings dating from 1832 to 1848 from the artist’s original “Indian Gallery.” The exhibition includes 11 full-length portraits of Plains Indians and 29 paintings of his observation of buffalo and their integration into all aspects of Native American life. These paintings are from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

George Catlin (1796-1872) was trained as a lawyer, but after just a few years gave up his practice and moved to Philadelphia in 1823 to become an artist. There he studied under Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully, both highly acclaimed portrait painters, and in 1824, Catlin was elected to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. After witnessing a delegation of American Indians in Washington, D.C., and the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1832, Catlin resolved to use his art “in rescuing from oblivion the looks and customs of the vanishing races of native man in America.” He believed that painting Native Americans, portraying their traditions and practices, and recording the wilderness of American, were “themes worthy of the lifetime of one man.” Catlin devised an ambitious plan to visit every tribe of the Indians in North America and to record the “Noble Savage”, unspoiled in his native land, with a goal to create faithful portraits of Indians and views of their villages and society.

During the 1830s, Catlin made five trips to the “Far West” becoming the first artist to record the Plains Indians in their own territory. His sketches and paintings are the first and most important record of the Indian cultures and land west of the Mississippi River before Euro-American settlement. Catlin was also a prolific writer and in 1841 published his Letters and Notes, which have provided valuable detailed descriptions about his travels and his paintings.

Although Catlin painted many bust-length portraits, his full-length figures were rarer and more detailed as seen in Ee-áh-sá-pa, Black Rock, a Two Kettle Chief, 1832. Black Rock, a Lakota Sioux, was highly respected and according to Catlin, “a tall and fine looking man, of six feet or more in stature.” To emphasize his importance and nobility, Catlin presents Black Rock in a classic “regal” pose—a practice he frequently used for important subjects. Wrapped in a decorated buffalo robe, he directly confronts the viewer with his left hand clenching his extended spear. Flowing down his back from his head to the ground, his impressive headdress is made of war-eagles’ quills and ermine skins.

Additional paintings in the exhibition include village scenes, Indian rituals and customs, and buffalo hunts with the majority of works painted during his extended trip west in 1832-1833.

Catlin’s paintings had a major influence on artists and developments in American Indian portraiture, yet, during his lifetime he was criticized for his flatness of color and his hasty sketching technique. Today, we revere Catlin for his ability to capture the character and essence of the sitter, and his portrayals of village life and buffalo hunts seem immediate and spontaneous conveying a sense of the action and spirit of the scene.

When completed, Catlin’s “Indian Gallery” included over 420 paintings and were first exhibited in Pittsburg and later traveled to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and in 1845 traveled to the Louvre in Paris. The collection was purchased by a private collector following Catlin’s death and donated to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Available in the Museum Store: a fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition with an essay by guest curator Dr. Adam Duncan Harris, Petersen Curator of Art and Research, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The catalogue includes extended image captions alongside reproduction of all the works on view.

George Catlin’s American Buffalo is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Generous support for the exhibition has been provided by Mary Anne and Richard W. Cree, and Lynn and Foster Friess. Additional support for the exhibition and the publication was provided by William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment Fund and the Smithsonian Council for American Art. Support for Treasures to Go, the Museum’s traveling exhibition program comes from The C.F. Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia.

The Palm Springs Art Museum presentation is funded in part by the museum’s Western Art Council. Additional support is provided by Rebecca Benaroya and Loren G. Lipson, M.D.

Exhibition season sponsors: Joan Dale and R.D. Hubbard, Dorothy and Harold J. Meyerman, Annette and Ted Lerner, JoAnn McGrath, and Deborah and Kenneth Novack.