During both his trips to the western United States, in 1859 and 1863, Bierstadt observed and sketched the American buffalo (actually bison) that dominated the rolling grasslands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. In The Buffalo Trail, made after his second trip in 1863, Bierstadt...
During both his trips to the western United States, in 1859 and 1863, Bierstadt observed and sketched the American buffalo (actually bison) that dominated the rolling grasslands from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. In The Buffalo Trail, made after his second trip in 1863, Bierstadt depicts the seasonal migration of the buffalo between feeding grounds and salt licks. At this time, the creatures were beginning to be threatened by extinction from excessive hunting. Hundreds of thousands of hides were being shipped back east by the 1870s, and by 1880 only a few thousand buffalo remained. Bierstadt himself had hunted them on his first trip West, but, as Ludlow writes, on the 1863 venture he focused solely on sketching: “Our artist [Bierstadt], though a good shot . . . had seen enough buffalo-hunting in other expeditions to care little for it now, compared with the artistic opportunities which our battue [hunt] afforded him for portraits of fine old bulls.”In this painting, rather than feature a solitary animal, Bierstadt instead silhouetted a whole herd against bright reflections in the stream, as sunlight breaks through ominous clouds. A date of about 1867 has been assigned to The Buffalo Trail, based on the label of a London picture restorer attached to the back of the stretcher; it is believed that the painting was purchased in England, though further evidence of its initial ownership has yet to be discovered. Bierstadt and his wife set sail on a two-year trip to Europe in June 1867, spending time in Great Britain and on the Continent. The canvas could have been executed while Bierstadt was overseas or shortly before his travels, in anticipation of a sale. Bierstadt’s popularity outside the United States was on the rise, especially after his huge 1863 painting The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (now Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) sold for $25,000 to James McHenry, an English railroad entrepreneur, who exhibited it in London to great acclaim. The Buffalo Trail also relates to two oil sketches (both private collection) signed by Bierstadt and dated 1867. In 1869 he executed a second finished painting, Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Similar in size to the MFA’s picture, the Corcoran composition shows the migrating animals struggling against a darker, more agitated sky, with less light reflected on the water. Bierstadt continued to depict buffalo throughout his career, culminating in his well-known 1888 canvas The Last of the Buffalo (also Corcoran Gallery of Art), featuring a bison charging a Native American on horseback. Notes 1. Fitz Hugh Ludlow, The Heart of the Continent (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870), 62. Karen E. Quinn
Lower right: ABierstadt [AB in monogram]
After 1867, probably owned in England (the label of an English picture restorer is attached to the back of the canvas). By 1947, private collector, New York; Feb. 26-7, 1947, Anonymous Sale, Parke-Bernet, New York, lot 64; 1947, with Charles D. Childs, Boston; 1947, sold by Charles D. Childs to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1947, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 12, 1947)
Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865