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

Media - 1985.66.404 - SAAM-1985.66.404_1 - 9039

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.

Visiting Information

October 11, 2019 November 22, 2020
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission


George Catlin’s American Buffalo
Artist George Catlin journeyed west five times in the 1830s, traversing the Great Plains and visiting more than 140 American Indian tribes. In hundreds of canvases, Catlin recorded the lifeways of Plains Indians, including illustrating massive herds of buffalo and their importance in daily life. In George Catlin’s American Buffalo, Adam Duncan Harris considers forty of Catlin’s paintings and the artist’s role as an early proponent of wilderness conservation and the national park idea, and how that advocacy remains relevant today—to the Great Plains, the buffalo, and land use.



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.

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Online Gallery

Media - 1985.66.410 - SAAM-1985.66.410_1 - 81524
Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1979.144.63 - SAAM-1979.144.63_2 - 117397
Buffalo Dance-Six Dancers, Two Drummers
Dateca. 1920-1950
gouache and pencil on paper
Not on view
Media - 1979.144.34 - SAAM-1979.144.34_1 - 118116
January 23rd, Buffalo Deer Dance
Dateca. 1918
watercolor and pencil on paper
Not on view
Media - 1985.66.405 - SAAM-1985.66.405_1 - 81521
Buffalo Cow, Grazing on the Prairie
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1966.36.205 - SAAM-1966.36.205_1 - 118767
Bison at Bay
Not on view
Media - 1985.66.491 - SAAM-1985.66.491_1 - 53547
Crow Lodge of Twenty-five Buffalo Skins
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1979.144.84 - SAAM-1979.144.84_2-000001 - 117228
Buffalo Hunter
Dateca. 1920-1925
watercolor, ink, and pencil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1966.36.90 - SAAM-1966.36.90_1 - 118720
Buffalo Dance, Oklahoma
Not on view
Media - 1985.66.485 - SAAM-1985.66.485_1 - 81567
Medicine Buffalo of the Sioux
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1985.66.408 - SAAM-1985.66.408_1 - 9046
Buffalo Chase, a Single Death
oil on canvas
Not on view
Media - 1984.78.3 - SAAM-1984.78.3_1 - 75181
Untitled, from the portfolio Indian Self-Rule
color lithograph on paper
Not on view
Media - 1977.96 - SAAM-1977.96_1 - 125988
Artist at Forty as a Buffalo
color lithograph on paper
Not on view
Media - 1995.11 - SAAM-1995.11_1 - 12526
Buffalo Dance
Indiana limestone
Not on view


Beatien Yazz
born Wide Ruins, AZ 1928
Media - portrait_image_113604.jpg - 90326
George Catlin
born Wilkes-Barre, PA 1796-died Jersey City, NJ 1872

"If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me from visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America." With these words George Catlin staked his artistic claim.

Woodrow Crumbo
born Lexington, OK 1912-died Cimarron, NM 1989

Crumbo was born in Lexington, Oklahoma, the son of an Indian mother and a French father.

Paul Flying Eagle Goodbear
born Cheyenne Reservation, Fay, OK 1913-died Chicago, IL 1954
Allan Houser
born Apache, OK 1914-died Santa Fe, NM 1994

Of Chiracahua Apache and English descent, Allan Houser (originally Hauzous) grew up in a world of farming and ranching, rich with the Apache heritage of his people as taught through the songs and stories of his father.

Julian Martinez
born San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM 1879-died San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM 1943

Although Julian Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo) created many paintings on paper, he is best known for his collaborations with his wife, the potter Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso Pueblo).

Fritz Scholder
born Breckenridge, MN 1937-died Phoenix, AZ 2005
Media - portrait_image_114971.jpg - 135980
Jaune Quick-To-See Smith
born St. Ignatius, Flathead Reservation, MT 1940

A Native American of French-Cree, Shoshone, and Salish blood, New Mexican artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith creates paintings and drawings that reflect her upbringing in a household where art and horses were equally important.

Awa Tsireh
born San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM1898-died San Ildefonso Pueblo, NM ca. 1955

Awa Tsireh, also known as Alfonso Roybal, was one of the first Pueblo painters to receive recognition by the Santa Fe art community.

Thomas Vigil
born Tesuque Pueblo ca. 1889-died 1960

Although the pueblo of Tesuque is located only a few miles from the pueblo of San Ildefonso, Tesuque experienced little of the artistic renaissance of San Ildefonso.