As a hired artist on government surveys and expeditions, John Mix Stanley not only created beautiful watercolors and sketches of the landscape and people he encountered, but he was also responsible—along with all the other members of the party—to contribute to camp life.
One of the tasks required of him was to assist in the hunting parties, procuring wild game for the expedition members to eat. Isaac Stevens put Stanley’s reputation as both a hunter and an Indian delegate to the test on the 1853 expedition to survey a northern route for the Pacific railroad. Stevens asked Stanley to take a party of men north of Fort Benton to meet with the Piegans, a branch of the formidable Blackfeet, and bring in some of their leaders to treat with him. The group rode north past Three Buttes, more than thirty-five miles away, where they came across a large camp of Piegans. While encamped, Stanley organized and partook in a thrilling buffalo hunt, and brought back to Fort Benton a group of chiefs, braves and warriors to meet with Stevens.
The hunt was commemorated in Scenes and Incidents of Stanley’s Western Wilds, a panorama that featured 42 canvases, depicting Stanley’s encounters and experiences in the American West. One of these panels titled “A GRAND BUFFALO HUNT,” showed the artist participating in the chase. Although this work has since been lost, an 1854 studio piece, Buffalo Hunt (seen above), preserves the same event.
This iconic theme in American art was a popular motif for artists depicting western scenes. Introduced by Titian Ramsay Peale in 1832, his work, American Buffaloe, was reproduced as a lithograph in the magazine, Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports. Peale’s work was an imagined one, derived from two separate field illustrations, a study of an Indian on horseback and a portrait of a bison on the plains. Both sketches were made while working as an expeditionary artist with Stephen Long’s tour of the south-central plains in 1819 – 1820. He created this imagined hunting scene from his own experiences. Peale, like Stanley, was a deep-seated hunter, and like Stanley, was required to contribute to the expedition’s survival in the territories.
Between the years 1845 and 1855, Stanley painted at least four different versions of the buffalo hunt.
To learn more, order a copy of Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley (Norman: Oklahoma University Press) forthcoming May 2015, or join us at our symposium celebrating the art and life of John Mix Stanley on June 6.