Catlin and Two Companions Shooting Buffalo by George Catlin
About the Work
"Buffaloes grazing" was all Catlin said about American Pasturage in the accompanying catalog, but he recognized the critical importance of bison to Plains Indian culture. "Differences between tribes existed in languages, in social, political, and religious ceremonies," historian Donald J. Berthrong noted, but one similarity was paramount: the "flesh of the buffalo was the indispensable source of food." Catlin returned to the theme of buffalo and particularly buffalo hunts repeatedly in his art, showing hunters from almost every Western tribe pursuing what was, quite simply, their staff of life. Buffalo provided clothing, shelter, utensils, and all the other necessities for Plains Indian survival. For the artist, the subject was irresistible. It put men and animals in motion and introduced an element of danger in the mix, such as an enraged bull or protective cow turned on the hunters, trying to "scalp the scalper." The arid plains would prove stubbornly resistant to the incursions of white farmers, but formed a natural pasturage that sustained the vast herds early travelers reported on with awe. Catlin, who enjoyed hunting and fishing as outdoor recreation, was no exception. Besides painting Indian hunters giving chase on horseback, or painting Indians wearing snowshoes stalking buffalos (a scene he never saw, since his trips to the West were all summer excursions, but felt compelled to illustrate), Catlin recorded his own buffalo hunting exploits and made them a recurring autobiographical strain in his art.