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Western Landscape
Richard Murray

Painting Portraits and Landscapes

Catlin was not trained as a landscape painter—in fact his training was as a portraitist, and as a special kind of portraitist—a miniature painter, one who paints small portraits on ivory that are usually carried in lockets—very personal kinds of portraits. His idea in going west was to paint portraits of the American Indians, who were famous at that time, on the frontier, the frontier being the trans-Mississippi frontier up to the Upper Missouri River, and the Platte, and the Yellowstone. So when he got out there, he began to look for people to paint to populate his Indian gallery, and, of course, he didn't choose the baker or the baker's wife. He went right to the chief and the chiefs' families and the warriors. But they were placed in a landscape that he had never seen before. In fact, few easterners had ever seen something like this. The eastern landscape was a kind of closed, empathic, spiritual landscape of forests, of rivers, of domesticated animals and landscapes. It was a landscape that stressed a kind of notion of a glowing deity, infusing the entire scene—in fact, very much based on transcendental ideas by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others. The land on the Missouri on the steamboat Yellowstone must have been, for Catlin, like one of our astronauts plopping down on the moon and seeing a landscape that is so totally different that he had to paint it.

The Beautiful, the Rational, and the Sublime

Just like he carried his notions of portraiture of nobles with him when he went to the West, he carried concepts of landscape painting with him, too. And he rendered them in what was called at that time "the beautiful"—that is, rounded, spacious, rationally organized land. Although it was a moonscape, he made it into something familiar for him, and for the people who would see his paintings in the East. A very fine example is his painting called River Bluffs 1320 Miles Above St. Louis, painted in 1832. These fantastic bluffs rolling down into the river resemble crater-like scenes. And then, on the other hand, he could paint in a mode that was called "the sublime." And the sublime was a threatening, overpowering, emotional kind of scene—river snags, storms, but he chose to depict the prairie fires that roared through the prairies, burning them out, chasing everyone away and in the process, regenerated the land. So Catlin is painting in both the beautiful mode, the rational mode, and the sublime—that is the threatening, the over-powering, and the stormy.

Karl Bodmer: A Painter Colleague

Catlin was not the only person painting landscapes on the trans-Mississippi frontier in the early 1830s. He arrived there and took the steamer Yellowstone far up to the upper Missouri reaches, where it joined with the Yellowstone. Another artist came a year after him. He was a Swiss artist by the name of Karl Bodmer. He painted some of the very same scenes, and the very same people that Catlin painted. But here is a well-trained European artist, unlike Catlin, who knew how to paint the dramatic landscape. And he's—that is Karl Bodmer—is painting mostly in this sublime mode. He would choose, for example, a beaver lodge on the Missouri River, with all of its attendant snags and crashed trees and animals and birds flying all over in a dark and kind of emotionally involved way.

Four Bears: An Indian Painter

Yet, there was a third kind of landscape painting going on at this very same time. And that is the landscape painting by the Mandan second chief Four Bears and some of his fellow Mandans, who would paint the history of their lives and the landscape on themselves—on their buckskin shirts. We do have a landscape painting by Four Bears, at least a copy of it, which shows how the American Indian, how the Plains Indian, viewed the landscape in stark contrast to Bodmer or even Catlin.

Indian and European Painting Compared

Western landscape painters look at the land and frame it in terms of borders. There is a topographical aspect to this—a mapping aspect—and, ironically, there is the sociological aspect of them mapping the rivers for other Westerners to come. So, while they are exploring and painting the scenes in the West, they are providing guideposts for others to follow them and occupy that land. It's one of the many ironies of George Catlin, of the artists who are painting on the Plains. Four Bears's shirt depicts his battles, his protection of his people, and it has no borders. The landscape he is acting in is borderless. And that was the notion of how an American Indian, a Plains Indian, would look at the landscape. It had no limits. It had no borders. They roamed freely throughout the land, following the strange animals that Catlin saw—the buffalo, the elk. They lived upon the Plains, and the Plains had no borders.

"Unending Space"

A Western painting has borders. It has a frame. But Catlin was able to express the vastness of this space, the almost unending space, by having high horizon lines and dramatic small little figures atop mountains and such in the foreground and a river flowing out to seemingly endless space. Catlin, in his Letters and Notes, would often say, "Well, I arrived at this place and they tell me it's the West, but now someone tells me the West is over yonder, so I go over yonder. As I stroll through the prairies, I go yonder and there they tell me the West is yonder." So the idea of enclosed space, even though this has borders, did not apply to Catlin's experience. And when the Western viewer saw these paintings, they must have thought, "Where's the little farm? Where's the cow? Where's the cabin?" Well, they weren't there.

Catlin and the Buffalo

When Catlin saw this strange landscape that seemed to have no limits, he found in it the people that he came to love, and as he said, "Because they love me, I love them," but he found also an animal virtually unknown in Philadelphia, where he came from, and that is this huge massive creature called either buffalo or bison. He became fascinated by this creature because it seemed to move by instinct alone and in gigantic herds. Just as the prairies would be caught up in fire to regenerate the land, so the prairie would be caught up in vast herds of buffalo as they came roaring through. Catlin observed them at firsthand. He painted many, many pictures of the way the American Indians hunted the buffalo in all seasons.

Hunting Buffalo

He depicted the various modes of capture, of killing the buffalo, and the ways that the buffalo was used. Every part of the animal had some prize about it—its bones, its horns, its meat, the organs, the skin, the fur—all of this was used in some way by Plains Indians. This was a garden of resources that they could not afford to waste, unlike later excursions of buffalo hunts, which would come across the railroads and shoot thousands of buffaloes, just for the fun of it. Now there's no doubt that there's commercial value in buffalo. But the main reason for American Indians to kill them was to live on them. They were their sustenance. In stark contrast, fur companies—the American Fur Company, Canadian fur companies—shot many, many, many buffalo for their furs and traded pelts—otters and other kinds of animals, with Indians so they carried on a worldwide trade. And one of the other ironies here is that the Yellowstone, the steamboat that Catlin first took up the Missouri, belonged to a fur trading company, so as he was on his explorations, he was also participating in the opening up of a trade route by steamboat to the fur countries in the North.

Grizzly Bears and Prairie Dogs

The other animal he discovered was the grizzly bear. Now, there were bears in the East, of course, but the grizzly and his ferocious appetite was simply unknown. Grizzlies would eat anything, and, in fact, Catlin relates how grizzlies invaded his camp one night, ate up everything he had, including his canoe, all of the buffalo skins that he had, his bed. These were animals that one did not reckon with. And he made several paintings of grizzly bears—in a funny kind of empathetic way. One is the grizzly bear displaying its weapons, that is, its claws, and another is the grizzly and a mouse, life-size, placed together in one picture—the huge and the diminutive and the ferocious and the harmless—all living together on this prairie. The other animal he discovered, and made some of his most humorous paintings of, is the prairie dog. Prairie dogs lived in villages.

One of Catlin's most humorous paintings is a picture of him and his sidekick standing in front of a prairie dog village with the dogs rising up out of the burrows and making their very distinct kind of chatter and yapping. And it's as though Catlin and his sidekick there were carrying on a conversation with these prairie dogs. Prairie dogs, too, were a means to sustain the prairie, or the nomadic life of the Plains Indians.

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