Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists

October 11, 2019 — November 22, 2020

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
Artwork Image
Media - 1985.66.404 - SAAM-1985.66.404_1 - 9039

Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie by George Catlin, 1832–1833

In the nineteenth century, American bison (commonly called the buffalo) thundered across the Great Plains of the American West in the millions. They symbolized the abundance of the land, and for centuries played a vital role in the lives of Native Americans, providing sustenance and spiritual nourishment. Wild and majestic, revered and hunted, buffalo have long captured the popular imagination, and their iconic images figure prominently in America’s art.

Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists considers the representation of the American buffalo from two perspectives: a selection of paintings by George Catlin (1796–1872), and works by modern Native artists Woodrow Crumbo, Paul Flying Eagle Goodbear, Allan Houser, Julian Martinez, Fritz Scholder, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Awa Tsireh, Thomas Vigil, and Beatien Yazz. Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River, and in the 1830s he journeyed west five times to record, as he called it, the “manners and customs” of Native cultures, painting scenes and portraits from life. His ambitious project was largely fueled by the fear that American Indians, the great buffalo herds, and a way of life would one day vanish. In hundreds of canvases, he captured the landscape and tribal figures, together with the central importance of the buffalo to Native lifeways.

The twentieth-century sculpture and works on paper included in this installation advance a narrative reassuringly different from Catlin’s: one of vibrance and continuity. With an innovative use of line, form, and color, each work affirms both tribal presence and the enduring importance of the buffalo to American Indian cultures. All forty-five works on view are from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Note: Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists was scheduled to be on view from October 11, 2019 through April 12, 2020. The exhibition closed temporarily when the Smithsonian closed its museums March 14, 2020 as a public health precaution to help contain the spread of COVID-19. The exhibition reopened September 17, 2020, then closed again November 23, 2020.

Learn More

Re:Frame "Buffalo ≠ Bison"

Exhibition Catalogue

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery

George Catlin and His Indian Gallery includes 120 color plates with an illustrated commentary by Joan Troccoli, founding director and curator of the Denver Art Museum’s Institute of Western American Art; essays by Brian Dippie, professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia; Christopher Mulvey, professor at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, England; and Therese Thau Heyman, guest curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and an introduction by W. Richard West, founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It is available for purchase online for $65 ($39.95 softcover).

Exhibition Catalogue

George Catlin’s American Buffalo

A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by Adam Duncan Harris, the Petersen Curator of Art and Research at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. In his commentary about Catlin’s paintings, Harris explores the artist’s representation of the close relationship between Native Americans and the buffalo. The book is published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, London. It is available for purchase online for $49.95 (hardcover only).


Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Knobloch Family Foundation, American Prairie Reserve, Tania and Tom Evans, Kavar Kerr, Margery and Edgar Masinter, and Maggie and Dick Scarlett.