Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, head chief, Blood Tribe
In 1830, the United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which initiated the forced, government-sanctioned western migration of numerous Indian people from their homelands.
Determined to document what he saw as a “vanishing race,” George Catlin devoted the large part of his artistic career to the project of recording Native American culture for posterity. In his lifetime, Catlin produced more than 500 paintings depicting the “customs and manners” of American Indians, as well as a series of books chronicling his experiences among them.
Over the course of the 1830s, Catlin took several trips west, spending time with various tribes, including the Blackfoot people in the northern region of the Great Plains. It was during this period that he painted the portrait shown here. The portrait’s sitter is a chief of the Blackfoot Blood tribe named Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat (a reference to a prime cut of the buffalo). The chief is pictured in what appears to be ceremonial attire. His face is marked with red paint and he wears a feathered headdress and deerskin tunic. He also holds a flute, which Catlin tells us in his Notes and Letters was carved by the chief himself.
Like many other nineteenth-century artists and writers, Catlin subscribed to (and perpetuated) a romanticized notion of the American Indian as man in his natural state, uncorrupted by civilization. Through his paintings of American Indians and collections of indigenous artifacts, Catlin desired to preserve the memory of the “noble savage” doomed to extinction as the United States, driven by pioneer spirit, government policy, and the powerful idea of “Manifest Destiny,” expanded ever westward. In his own words, the artist wanted to be “the historian” of the Native American people.
Catlin has been criticized for having staged Native American performances at his exhibitions in order to attract audiences and raise revenue. He might also be charged with passively accepting a view of the American Indian with foundations in an ideology of supremacism. However, Catlin’s respect for the people he depicted ultimately comes across in paintings like Buffalo Bull’s Back Fat, which depicts its subject not as an interchangeable type or a curiosity on display, but as an individual possessed of dignity and a rich cultural heritage.
Barbara Thompson, Curator for the Arts of Africa and the Americas, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
“As always in our own histories, we send our own people out to document the history of others and certainly Catlin or Edward Curtis—at different points in time, but certainly both of them—were capturing images and using images of native peoples to educate American society about these so called ‘dying races’ and some cases ‘the noble savage.’ Both of them were presenting a very romantic view of that moment in history and a very romantic view of the quintessential native—not looking at and not presenting the nuances of native life and native identities that existed. But, of course, nobody, or a very few people, in Western society questioned the truths behind those images or the validity, never really thought about it or considered how staged some of these were, and just even the inaccuracies of staging or inaccuracies of identity in some of Catlin’s paintings that he might identify somebody with a name or a given cultural affiliation which was wrong.”
Bataille, Gretchen M. Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Dippie, Brian W. Catlin and His Contemporaries: The Politics of Patronage. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.
Dippie, Brian W., et al. George Catlin and his Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Art Museum; New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.
Eisenman, Stephen, ed. Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History, 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007.
Fulford, Tim and Kevin Hutchings. Native Americans and Anglo-American Culture, 1750–1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Smithsonian American Art Museum Web site. http://www.americanart.si.edu.