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Core Theme–Western Landscape

When Catlin went west in 1830, the average easterner and the interested European had only a vague and confused impression of the country beyond the Mississippi. In his journals Catlin talks about the vastness of the West–the breadth of the plains, the distance to the horizon, the unending sky. The place itself fosters a concept of space different from the one held by inhabitants in the forested regions of the East.

Catlin marveled at the spectacular geological wonders he saw, sites such as the eroded sandstone bluffs in the South Dakota Badlands, the "stupendous scene, called by the voyageurs the 'Grand Dome,'" the brilliant colors of the clay bluffs known as the "Brick Kilns," and the wall of quartz at the Pipestone Quarry. And he turned his attention to the distinctive characteristics of the prairie. Catlin admired the endless variety of wild flowers and the abundance of delicious fruits. He wrote about the high grass, wild sun-flowers, "voluptuous" lilies, the "clusters of plum trees and gooseberries and wild currant, service-berries," and "buffalo bushes lining the banks of the river and loaded with the weight of their fruit."

The grasses seen by Catlin were adapted to the low levels of rainfall and at that time supported vast herds of buffalo, elk, goats, sheep, wolves, bear, and varieties of birds. Catlin thought that the "fleet-bounding" antelope of the prairie was "different from all other known varieties," and noted that "flocks of fifty or a hundred will follow the boat of the descending voyageur, or the travelling caravan, for hours together." And he described a visit to a village of prairie dogs, who "sit, bark and chatter when an enemy is approaching their village."

Home to countless species of plant and animal life, the great prairies once spanned millions of acres across North America. Today, less than ten percent of the complex ecosystem remains, largely under the protection of parks and nature preserves.

This theme focuses on the interdependence of living organisms on the prairie, in Catlin's time and today. It also explores the sublime and picturesque traditions influencing the artist's depiction of the western landscape. Lesson plans on this website correlate with national curriculum standards for U.S. History, English Language Arts, Geography, Life Science, and Visual and Performance Arts.

Classroom Activities–Lesson Plans

  1. Native American Folklore
  2. The Mandan Buffalo Dance
  3. At Home on the Prairie

If you need assistance in implementing these activities, please consult our museum's education staff. They can help adapt or expand the existing lessons to meet your circumstances and curricular goals. Please email us at AmericanArtEducation[at]si.edu.

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