Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River to record what he called the “manners and customs” of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life. His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. On his trips, Catlin recorded the massive herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains of the American West. In chronicling the lifeways of Plains Indian cultures, he captured the central importance of the buffalo in the daily lives of American Indian tribes, from food and shelter to ceremony and naming.
The exhibition explores Catlin’s representation of buffalo and their integration into the lives of Native Americans through 40 original paintings by the artist.
Catlin was a prolific writer as well as a painter. In the 1830s, he wrote that without some greater measure of restraint on the part of advancing settlers, the buffalo would soon be eradicated from the Great Plains. He called for the United States to establish a national park as a sanctuary for both bison and the American Indians he encountered on the plains. His vision came true, in part, in 1872 with the foundation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people.