CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 4. Catching the Wild Horse

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

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Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

PLATE No. 4.


Taking the wild horse and "breaking him down" is one of the proudest feats of the Indian and requires the sudden rallying and desperate use of all his manly faculties and even with the complete exhaustion of all these he is often compelled to relinquish his pursuit in despair. The most frequent mode of catching the horse is by "throwing the laso" from the back of a horse at full speed as is seen in the distant part of this picture and by "choking the animal down" as is seen in the group in the foreground. For this desperate feat the Indian prepares his laso, which is a braided thong made of raw hide fifteen or twenty yards in length and coiled upon his left arm, with a noose at the end of it which when he throws out its coil drops over the horse's neck. This done, by holding back upon the other end of the laso, or by having it fastened to the girth of his own horse, he gradually tightens it upon his running victim's neck until its speed is materially checked by the stoppage of its breath. He then dismounts, and leaves his riding horse, balancing on his feet as he is dragged along by this strangling prize, until it falls from exhaustion. He then instantly rushes game, and fastened a pair of  hobbles on its fore-feet, and a short halter, with a noose, firmly around its under jaw, loosens the laso around the neck, enabling the horse to breathe; and leaning back with the weight of all his body strength, at the end of the halter, to prevent the horse from rising upon its feet or from throwing itself over and receiving an injury by falling upon its back.

In this struggle, which is called "breaking down" and generally lasts about half an hour, there is a desperate contention for the mastery, which is easily seen to be decided by reason and invention, rather than by superiority in brute force. The Indian leans back upon his halter, which is firmly held in both hands, and as the horse is getting breath and strength to rise, repeatedly checks it, preventing it from gaining any advantage; and gradually advances, hand over hand upon the tightened halter towards the horse's head, until poor affrighted, trembling, and conquered animal, covered foam, allows the caressing hand of its new master to pat nose, and in a few minutes to cover its eyes, when the exchange of a few deep-drawn breaths from their meeting nostrils seems to compromise the struggle; the animal discovering in its conqueror, instead of an enemy, a friend, who has from that moment little else to do than mount upon its back, with halter around its jaw, and ride it into camp, his willing slave for the rest of its life.

In these desperate struggles the finest and the fleetest of the band are seldom overtaken; nor would such misfortune befall the hindmost, were it not that the pursuing horse gets advantage of the ground, and shortens the distance, by the superior judgment and guidance of man.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins "Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the "Indian Gallery", Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at