Bonhams, Los Angeles, CA, 1992
Private Collection, Illinois
This pen and ink drawing by Charles M. Russell shares its name with Albert Bierstadt’s great masterpiece, which shows a single rider locked in a terrifying duel with his charging prey. Though there is no evidence that suggests Russell was directly inspired by Bierstadt’s work, this drawing seems to address a similar theme but from a dramatically different perspective.
“Both [Frederic Remington and Russell] were indebted to the American landscape master from Düsseldorf, Albert Bierstadt, for initially developing the symbolism of nature’s demise through the buffalo-hunt image,” writes Peter Hassrick in Charles M. Russell. “In 1889 he had produced a huge salon piece, Last of the Buffalo, for exhibition at the Paris Exposition that year. It was the final expression of a theme Bierstadt had conceived in the early 1860s—a lament about the passing of the West, the demise of the buffalo, and the press of civilization. Yet in all its epic grandeur, Last of the Buffalo was a deceit. He had, in his own words, ‘endeavored to show the buffalo in all his aspects and depict the cruel slaughter of a noble animal now almost extinct.’ But the truth was not that the Indian had decimated the herds—and died in the process, as symbolized by the dead horse and Indian in the foreground—but rather that the hide hunters, cattle ranchers, and railroads had done the job. Bierstadt’s dramatic allegory was deceptive and rueful. However, the message may have been a strong one for Russell. Perhaps it helped explain away some of the paradox of his own partial involvement in the diminution of the last great herds.”
On its own, Russell’s The Last of the Buffalo can be read quite literally as three forlorn figures sit amid several pairs of bison horns. These horns are the last of their kind as the buffalo herds have been decimated and the buffalo hunters have been rendered obsolete. But held up against Bierstadt’s work, it tells a more solemn story about the Native American people who so depended on the buffalo, and how their lives were changed drastically once the great herds had vanished. Russell, who famously disliked James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans because it was hopelessly naïve and had perfect Indian portrayals, was less romantic and more practical about Native American subjects than Bierstadt.. Russell saw the demise of the buffalo not as a victory, but a defeat for his subjects. That feeling of despair and loss seems to hang in the air here in this drawing, even as it shows his subjects picking up the pieces and preparing to move forward.
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Please note that the first unframed photo is most accurate for color. Framed photographs are to show the frame and are not color corrected to the painting.
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