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

October 11, 2019 - April12, 2020

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F 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

George Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River to record what he called the “manners and customs” of American Indians, painting scenes and portraits from life. His intention was to document these native cultures before, as he feared, they were irrevocably altered by settlement of the frontier and the mass migrations forced by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. On his trips, Catlin recorded the massive herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains of the American West. In his paintings, Catlin portrayed the central importance of the buffalo in the daily lives of American Indian tribes.

Contemporary Native artists have continued to picture the buffalo as an essential aspect of indigenous cultural identity in North America. This exhibition offers an opportunity to present 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, each of which addresses the deep and sustained significance of the buffalo to them as individuals and to their tribes.

Catlin was a complicated figure in his own century and remains so today. This exhibition features 36 paintings from Catlin’s original “Indian Gallery” and 10 modern and contemporary works. Together these works, drawn entirely from SAAM’s permanent collection, provide two perspectives on the literal and metaphorical resonance of the buffalo in American art. Catlin’s dual fears for the future of the American Indian tribes and the buffalo fueled his desire to document what he saw as an endangered American way of life. Contemporary perspectives from within Native communities affirm the continuing relevance of the buffalo as a literal, symbolic, and metaphorical aspect of American Indian cultures.

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; essays by Brian Dippie, Christopher Mulvey and Therese Heyman; 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.

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).

Public Programs


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.