American artist George Catlin, who lived from 1796 to 1872, preserved hundreds of scenes and portraits of the American West as westward expansion forever transformed it.
A Pennsylvania native, he practiced law for a short time before turning to art and the frontier. His distinct, sometimes childlike renderings fulfilled a lifelong desire to document disappearing cultures and landscapes. Among his best-known subjects are wildlife and Native Americans.
As Wyoming grapples with the idea of hunting grizzly bears — 42 years after they were first protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species — a Catlin piece harkens to formerly wild times.
The print above, “Attacking the Grizzly Bear,” is a hand-colored lithograph from the artist’s 1844 North American Indian Collection. It was published in London that year, is about 12 by 18 inches and has since been popularized on everything from T-shirts to mouse pads, coffee mugs and miniskirts.
Such lithographs were often based on more formal works, and “Attacking the Grizzly Bear” has such a history.
Catlin sketched in the field and later made real paintings. In the winter of 1832-33 he put his brush to the canvas to produce an oil painting that is the precursor of the lithograph. A gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr., the original 24- by 29-inch painting is the property of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
And it is titled “Grizzly Bears Attacking Indians on Horseback.”
As the image was transposed from oil-on-canvass to hand-tinted lithograph 11 years later, the title was changed to have the Indians doing the attacking.
The prospect of hunting the powerful, quick, robust and sometimes aggressive grizzly with spears and clubs, even from horseback, would seem daunting. Although grizzly claws have been used as native jewelry and totems, many tribes proclaim a spiritual relationship with the grizzly bear and fight the prospect of trophy hunting today.
The change of the title raises questions. Would 19th century Native Americans have sought to hunt a grizzly, let alone take on two while lightly armed? Did Indians hunt grizzly bears widely? Was this an encounter in which grizzlies were defending a kill, or reacting to a surprise trespass? Would a horse linger around to suffer an attack? Did popular but stereotyped notions about Native Americans lead to the title’s change?
And finally, how will Wyoming’s contemporary culture and customs regard and treat the grizzly bear?