GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)
GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)
GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)
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GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)
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GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)

Buffalo Chase, A Surround by the Hidatsa

GEORGE CATLIN (1796-1872)
Buffalo Chase, A Surround by the Hidatsa
oil on canvas laid down on masonite
23 x 27 1⁄4 in. (58.4 x 69.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1832.
Benjamin O’Fallon, Missouri.
Emily O’Fallon, daughter of the above, by descent, 1842.
The Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois, acquired from the above, 1894.
Sotheby's, New York, 1 December 2011, lot 76, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
G. Catlin, “Plate No. 9: Buffalo Hunt. A Surround,” North American Indian Portfolio: Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America, London, 1844, p. 10, lithograph illustrated.
G. Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians written during Eight Years’ Travel (1832-1839) amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America, vol. I, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1926, pl. 79, lithograph illustrated.
G. Quimby, Indians of the Western Frontier: Paintings of George Catlin, Chicago, Illinois, 1954, pp. 54-55.
W.H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1979, pp. 258.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

George Catlin's work ranks among the earliest and most important records of the land, people and animals that occupied the American frontier. A lawyer turned self-taught painter, Catlin devoted himself to depicting Native American life after meeting a Plains Indian delegation in Philadelphia in 1828. In 1830, Catlin relocated to St. Louis, Missouri where he befriended the William Clark, co-leader of the celebrated Lewis and Clark Expedition. From 1830-1836, Catlin used St. Louis as a launching pad for travelling to Native American territories—his four deepest excursions taking place from 1832-1836. Following the same trail as the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, Catlin sojourned thousands of miles west of the Mississippi from present day Oklahoma to North Dakota. Having visited over 50 Native American tribes during his extensive travels, Catlin subsequently became the first painter to document the Plains Indians in their surroundings. Fully immersed with his subject, Catlin was appreciative of Native American cultures and more critical of the United States’ settlement policies and American expansionism, which were increasingly disruptive to the Native American way of life. Fear that these nations would be forever lost was one of the driving factors for Catlin to so fervently record his sitters. As a result, Catlin’s Buffalo Chase, a Surround by Hidatsa is a rare early ethnographic documentation of the Plains Indians and their culture.

Catlin likely painted Buffalo Chase, A Surround by Hidatsa during his first prolonged journey into Indian country in 1832. The eighty-six-day trip was one of fervent artistic output for him where he painted directly in the field. During his journey, Catlin painted approximately “135 pictures, mostly portraits, but also thirty-six scenes of Indian life, twenty-five landscapes and eight hunting scenes.” (B. Dippie, “Green Fields and Red Men,” George Catlin and his Indian Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 33) As Brian Dippie notes, “The quality of Catlin’s work in 1832 matched his productivity…It was as though the pressure of time had brought out the best in him.” (George Catlin and his Indian Gallery, 2002, p. 33). Likewise, John C. Ewers writes, “the series of paintings resulting from this 1832 expedition comprise the most important part of his oeuvre.” (George Catlin: Painter of Indians of the West,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for 1955, Washington, D.C., 1956, p. 493). Emblematic of his looser style in the field, Buffalo Chase, A Surround by the Hidatsa likely ranks among one of the most important early artistic records of the American West.

The present work depicts an event Catlin witnessed the summer of his storied 1832 trip while spending time with the Hidatsa—a Plains Indians nation who occupied what is now North Dakota. In 1842, the artist recounted the episode along with a sketch of the present work:

“Of these scenes I have witnessed many since I came into this country, and amongst them all, nothing have I seen to compare with one to which I was an eye-witness a few mornings since, and well worthy of being described…The plan of attack, which in this country is familiarly called a ‘surround,’ was explicitly agreed upon, and the hunters who were all mounted on their ‘buffalo horses’ and armed with bows and arrows or long lances, divided into two columns, taking opposite directions, and drew themselves gradually around the herd at a mile or more distance from them; thus forming a circle of horsemen at equal distances apart, who gradually closed in upon them with a moderate pace, at a signal given. The unsuspecting herd at length ‘got the wind’ of the approaching enemy and fled in a mass in the greatest confusion…the horseman had closed in from all directions, forming a continuous line around them…I had rode up in the rear and occupied an elevated position at a few rods distance, from which I could…survey from my horse’s back, the nature and progress of the grand melee. (Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, vol. 1, London, 1842 pp. 199-200)

When Catlin returned East from his many travels, he immediately aimed to show off his work in the form of his “Indian Gallery,” consisting of hundreds of paintings and Native American material culture. A promotional broadside from 1838 announced that the exhibition in Washington, D.C., comprised “Three Hundred & Thirty Portraits & Numerous other Paintings…collected from 38 Tribes…also, four Paintings representing the Annual Religious Ceremony of the Mandans,…a Series of One Hundred Landscape Views,…and a Series of Twelve buffalo Hunting Scenes.” (W.H. Treuttner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery, Washington, D.C., 1979, p. 38) After lackluster success in the United States, in 1839, Catlin brought his gallery to London with the intention to tour across the European continent. Despite initial interest, attendance dwindled but was invigorated when he began to include live figures in his gallery—at first Europeans in Native American guise and then actual Native Americans two years later, leading to renewed success. Today a near-complete set of Catlin’s first Indian Gallery paintings resides in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C—donated by a Philadelphia collector’s window in 1879.

The original owner of the present work, Benjamin O’Fallon, was among Catlin’s first and most important patrons. An Indian agent for the Missouri River Tribes from 1819-26, O’Fallon served as one of Catlin’s critical contacts and advisors when he set out on his Western travels—providing crucial access to the artist’s subjects. An avid collector of Native American culture himself, O’Fallon had at one point 42 paintings by Catlin—acquired through a combination of purchase, barter and, occasionally, as gifts from the artist for his services. While Catlin painted many paintings later in life in Europe, his O’Fallon pictures are believed to have been painted during his first two years of travels in the West from 1830-32.

The present work is one of two paintings of the same title, the other dated 1832-33 in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., which recount the scene Catlin witnessed on the Upper Missouri in the summer of 1832. Both paintings were used as the basis for a lithograph reproduced in 1845 in Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio: Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America. Consisting of 25 colored plates, the folio was one of the first books documenting Native American life in brilliant color and detail. In the header for this plate, Catlin writes, “On one occasion I was invited by the Indians to ride out and witness their attack on a heard of buffaloes, near one of their villages on the Upper Missouri, in the summer of 1832: I sat on my horse and witness a scene of this kind: a mode of attacking the buffaloes which they called Wa-rahs-took-kee, a surround.” ( “Plate No. 9: Buffalo Hunt. A Surround,” North American Indian portfolio: Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Prairies of America, London, 1844, p. 10)

Rendered with quick brushwork and a dramatic birds-eye view, Buffalo Chase, A Surround by Hidatsa invites the viewer into the spectacle and drama of the scene in Catlin’s signature fashion. A true historical document, the present work embodies Catlin’s lifelong devotion to preserving Native American culture. As W. Richard West explains, “Catlin placed great value on Indians and their cultures, revealing genuine concern at how they were being systemically stressed or destroyed by non-Indians. No artist could so passionately pour himself into his work the way Catlin did without having sincere respect and affection for the subjects of his work. Catlin’s impressive output of hundreds of paintings…is a testament to his single-minded devotion to capturing on canvas a people and a way of life threatened by western expansion.” (“Introduction,” George Catlin and his Indian Gallery, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2002, pp. 21-22)

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