Taking a fresh look at George Catlin’s paintings through the artist’s representation of buffalo and their integration into the lives of Native Americans, a new exhibition, George Catlin’s American Buffalo, debuted at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on May 18, 2013. The exhibition features 40 paintings by the artist, who produced some 500 works based on travels among 50 Native American tribes in the 1830s. The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the National Museum of Wildlife Art, is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. George Catlin’s American Buffalo will be on display in Jackson Hole through August 18, 2013, before traveling to additional museums across the U.S.
“Catlin’s paintings illuminate in great detail the close ties between Native American tribes and bison in the 1830s, and his writings about the land and its native inhabitants have informed generations of conservationists as they wrestle with sustainable ways to manage America’s Great Plains,” says Adam Duncan Harris, curator of art for the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Harris serves as guest curator of the George Catlin’s American Buffalo exhibition and contributed an essay for the show’s illustrated catalogue, to be published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Having the chance to work with the Smithsonian American Art Museum to interpret Catlin’s words and images was a great honor,” Harris says. “The resulting exhibit and catalog will help contemporary audiences see Catlin in a new light.”
Under the mentorship of Gen. William Clark of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition, George Catlin, a lawyer turned artist, undertook a quest to record the life and culture of American Indians living on the Plains. The project took him on an epic journey that stretched more than 2,000 miles along the upper Missouri River and made him one of the earliest artists of European descent to chronicle the massive herds of buffalo roaming America’s Great Plains. Along the way, Catlin captured how embedded the buffalo was in Native Americans’ lives, from food and shelter to ceremony and naming.
The new exhibition also explores Catlin’s role as an early proponent of wilderness conservation. A prolific writer, Catlin wrote in the 1830s that without some greater measure of restraint on the part of advancing settlers, the buffalo would soon be eradicated from the plains. He called for the establishment of a “nation’s Park” set aside from development as a refuge for buffalo and native tribes, a vision that partially came true with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
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.