About the Work of Art:

George Catlin (1796–1872)
No. 13, Buffalo Hunt, Under the White Wolf Skin, 1844
Toned lithograph
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1964.103

   

George Catlin (1796–1872), No. 13, Buffalo Hunt, Under the White Wolf Skin, 1844, toned lithograph, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1964.103

 

 

It is estimated that at one time, over sixty million bison roamed free across the North American plains. George Catlin, in 1830, was one of the earliest artists to venture west. He saw an America that was scarcely altered from the beginning of time—a paradise, a Garden of Eden. During his time in the West, Catlin produced written and visual observations of Native American culture and indigenous wildlife.

Catlin studied the buffalo and how Native Americans hunted them on the plains. Many tribes followed the buffalo throughout the year, adapted their social organization to the habits of the herds, and developed a remarkable range of hunting techniques. In this scene, two hunters disguised as wolves and on their hands and knees carefully approach the edge of a herd of buffalo. Catlin wrote:

While the herd of buffaloes are together, they seem to have little dread of the wolf, and allow them to come in close company with them. The Indian then has taken advantage of this fact, and often places himself under the skin of this animal, and crawls for half a mile or more on his hands and knees, until he approaches within a few rods of the unsuspecting group, and easily shoots down the fattest of the throng.

There were several varieties of western wolf species during Catlin’s era of observation. The artist noted, “. . . the most formidable and most numerous of which were white, often sneaking about in gangs or families of fifty of sixty in numbers. . . many of these animals grew to a very great size. . . .” Although these white wolves would rarely attack buffalo in a protective herd, they would attack a straggling weak or aged animal.

Among the most social of North American animals, buffalo communicate with each other through sounds and body movements to warn of danger and protect themselves against predators. Prior to the scene in Catlin’s print, the two figures probably approached downwind from the herd, knowing that the buffalo had poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell.

During the mid-1800s Catlin became concerned about the diminishing herds. Despite the first law passed by Congress in 1855 to protect the buffalo, unregulated hunting by fur traders, Euro-American settlers, the U.S. government, and Native American hunters contributed to their near extinction. Catlin later documented the critical role of the buffalo in Native American life:

It is a melancholy contemplation for one who has traveled as I have . . . and seen this noble animal in all its pride and glory, to contemplate it so rapidly wasting from the world, drawing the irresistible conclusion too . . . that its species is soon to be extinguished, and with it the peace and happiness of the tribes of Indians who are joint tenants with them, in the occupancy of these vast and idle plains.

By the late 1870s, the buffalo no longer sustained the natives of the plains, and the great herds dwindled to fewer than 500 animals. Catlin’s “irresistible conclusion,” however, was never realized. Controlled, protected herds in the United States and Canada today number about 200,000.

With his Indian Gallery, a collection of over 500 costumes and artifacts collected on his journeys, Catlin promoted works such as No. 13, Buffalo Hunt, Under the White Wolf Skin. When interest in his art developed, Catlin made copies of his paintings to sell to collectors rather than give up his originals. The artist ultimately spent more time promoting his Indian Gallery than traveling west to execute new paintings. When he later tried to sell his entire Indian Gallery to the U.S. government “for the benefit of posterity,” he was turned down three times. Upon Catlin’s death, his wife donated a large portion of his collection to the Smithsonian Institution, which now holds the country’s largest collection of Catlin’s work.

 

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