Buffalo ≠ Bison

  • What do bovids, bridges, and the West have to do with American art?

    SAAM's Re:Frame explores American art’s many meanings and connections with experts across the Smithsonian.

    MELISSA: They’re North America’s largest land mammals, standing six feet tall, weighing nearly a ton, but what’s the relationship between these iconic creatures, the Smithsonian Institution, and American art? Let’s dig in.

    Have you ever thought about the connection between art and... well then, buckle up. Join me and your personal team of Smithsonian experts as we “Re:Frame” American art.

    This sculpture, “Buffalo (model for Q Street Bridge),” was created in 1912 by artist Alexander Phimister Proctor. I wonder where the Q Street Bridge is? Oh, right here. The Q Street Bridge or, as it’s more properly known, the Dumbarton Bridge, connects the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC to Dupont Circle. It was completed in 1915. The statues on the bridge were sculpted by the same artist, A. Phimister Proctor. All these sculptures are making me want to see a real live buffalo. Tony Barthel is a curator at the National Zoo. So, does the National Zoo have buffalo?

    TONY BARTHEL: No, the National Zoo has American bison, and a lot of people call them buffalo; that’s incorrect. They’re actually very different species. American bison and the buffalo are both in the same family of animals. They include cattle, bison, buffalo, antelope, but within that family, bison and buffalo really aren’t that closely related.

    MELISSA: Then tell me, who are these lovely ladies?

    TB: This is Wilma and Zora, two female bison. They’re now adults at about five years old. In the winter, they’re real furry and have a thick, thick coat. In the summer, they shed out a lot of that coat until it comes off in carpets of fur, and that’s what you see now.

    MELISSA: They’re putting on their summer clothes now.

    TB: Yeah, they’re taking off their sweaters.

    MELISSA: How long has the zoo had bison?

    TB: Back in the late 1800s, the first animals that were part of this entity that became the National Zoo were bison living on the Mall at the time.

    MELISSA: On the National Mall?

    TB: Yeah, on the National Mall. They were down there, a little herd of bison. William Temple Hornaday is really the reason we have bison here. He was a taxidermist for the Smithsonian at the time and went on an expedition out West to collect some bison for exhibition in the museum, and on that trip was shocked to discover how few there were. He had in his mind vast herds of bison, and what he found was very few, and so that got him thinking about how important it was to conserve this species, and he came back and started lobbying Congress to establish a National Zoo to help protect the animals and engage the public in their stories, and that ultimately did lead to the founding of the National Zoo in 1889.

    MELISSA: That’s amazing! So bison were kind of the start of the zoo.

    TB: They were, absolutely.

    MELISSA: I wonder why Proctor chose to sculpt a buffalo, I mean bison, for the bridge? Why this particular animal? I bet Karen Lemmey, SAAM’s curator of sculpture, will have some insight. So Karen, tell me about Alexander Phimister Proctor.

    KAREN LEMMEY: Proctor was a man of the West. When he was about 10, 11 years old, his family moved to Denver, so he spends the rest of his childhood growing up there, hunting big game, and just loving the West and all its nature. His big break comes after studying in New York. He gets hired or commissioned to sculpt 35 animals that are emblematic of what the country sees.

    MELISSA: Like a bison?

    KL: Like a bison. Okay. So these big North American mammals, many of which he grew up hunting, he’s now depicting in plaster materials for the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

    MELISSA: Why a bison?

    KL: There are a lot of reasons why a bison. It’s a quintessential American icon at this point. Think of the Buffalo nickel. The animal itself was iconic as a symbol of the West, as a symbol of the fading of the myth of the West, the demise of the West, and Proctor sort of resurrects this animal in his work. They were a representation of the West, but they were also just seen as a national symbol.

    MELISSA: Okay, so for 19th century artists like A.P. Proctor, the bison was more than an animal. It was a symbol of an idealized American West, and who knew that these captivating creatures were also integral to the founding of the National Zoo? Today, thanks to conservation efforts around the country and here at the Smithsonian, the bison are still alive and well in all their fuzzy majesty.

    Bye, art nerds.
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