Art Chronicling The Plight Of Bison, As Rare As The Animal Itself

Jun 15, 2018

When museums have special exhibitions, what visitors don't know is that it takes years for the exhibit to evolve from a concept to the moment you are standing in front of that famous work of art. The Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West just opened its new exhibit featuring the famous Western American artist, Albert Bierstadt. But the process behind securing loans is not so easy.

Between 1867-1875, Bierstadt painted three different but similar paintings portraying the demise of the American Bison. Karen McWhorter, the Scarlett Curator of Western American Art for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, said the first one is titled The Buffalo Trail.

"We feel that this painting speaks to the thesis of this exhibition. It speaks to our point being that Bierstadt witnessed the bison being decimated in the West," said McWhorter.

The Buffalo Trail depicts the heyday of the buffalo, the next two paintings depict the downward spiral. Although, academics aren't sure if these paintings were meant to be displayed together, for this exhibit it hits the main objective right on the nose. Bierstadt didn't only paint landscapes, he also was conscious of the bison's plight

"This was his statement saying look at this iconic animal. Even at that time, it's the largest land mammal in North America. It symbolized the West in both its numbers and uniqueness as a species, of this recognition of the bison being symbolic of the wilderness of the West," she said.

The second painting titled The Buffalo Trail: Impending Storm displays the incoming threats to the bison such as the railroad and an increased human population. And the last one, Western Kansas, is about their demise according to Peter Hassrick, Director Emeritus and Senior Scholar at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

"It's called Western Kansas because western Kansas is where all the buffalo were being butchered by the buffalo hide hunters. In one year over 3.5 million hides were shipped out of western Kansas alone," said Hassrick.

All together Bierstadt is making a clear statement with these three paintings: during his lifetime, the bison faced near extinction because of the westward expansion. And this exhibit explores exactly this, Bierstadt as a conservationist.

"Sort of wakeup call for America. America didn't want to be woken up. They could care less about the buffalo and they could care less about the Indian but Bierstadt remained sensitive to these issues throughout his career," said Hassrick.

Ideally, the museum wanted to show all three paintings but they only got the first one. The Buffalo Trail's permanent home is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Elliot Davis, the John Moors Cabot Art Chair of the Americas Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, said when McWhorter came knocking on her door to borrow The Buffalo Trail, she had different plans for it.

"We're really looking towards this project to look at western art particularly Native American art at the time the Museum of Fine Arts opened our doors and The Buffalo Trail being so well known in the Karolick Collection could've been essential to that project," said Davis.

But she says every challenge presents an opportunity. So, they decided to go down a different path and use another of Bierstadt's works. Yet, even though they were able to snag the first one, McWhorter said it's not unusual for a museum to be unable to lock down an important piece of artwork for a special exhibition.

"Generally the reason for declined loans is that the institution has already committed the painting to another borrower or it's a central part of their interpretive plan and that's a response we got in a couple of cases and that's understandable," said McWhorter.

McWhorter said because of this curators have learned to be creative. They were missing two paintings, so they really had to think: How can they evoke the same message with just reproductions?

"We created this immersive audio-visual experience, in which reproductions of the paintings will be backlit and overhead you'll hear a narrator walking you through the paintings," said McWhorter.

McWhorter said in some ways, it's the best of both worlds. She says by creating an audio and visual experience, they were able to more clearly parse out the symbolism of the 19th-century paintings rather than leaving it up to the viewer to make out what it means. The exhibit runs through September 30.