Big Cats and Bison

Near East Far West Online Exhibition Guide

Colonial expansion into North Africa and the American West contributed to the decimation of animals such as lions and bison yet also opened new opportunities for study and observation. Collections of animals, or menageries, became increasingly accessible to a larger public during the 1800s. At the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris, viewers marveled at the animals kept in captivity, including many kinds of big cats and even American bison. Animaliers, or animal artists, spent hours sketching there, metaphorically liberating these animals in imagined landscapes.

Representations of exotic animals reflect ambivalent feelings toward so-called untamed lands. Some artists emphasize terrifying snarls and dramatic hunting scenes, reinforcing the idea of these places as dangerous and wild. Others present quieter, more pensive depictions that allude to the harsh reality of caged confinement. In the United States, bison represented a noble but doomed obstacle to westward expansion. Ultimately, they became a symbol of the nation that nearly caused their extinction in an effort to control the Indigenous populations who relied on them.

Antoine-Louis Barye
Centerpiece (Surtout de Table): Lion Hunt
18 x 26 1/2 x 12 in.
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore: Acquired by Henry Walters, 1898, 27.174

Antoine-Louis Barye, a prolific French animalier of the 1800s, regularly studied wildlife at the Jardin des Plantes and was best known for his work in bronze. Lion Hunt combines close observations of lions, horses, and an Egyptian buffalo. The king’s son Ferdinand Phillipe commissioned it as part of a set of hunting scenes to display on a formal dining table. The chosen subjects echo themes of violence and conquest reflected in Phillipe’s active participation in Algerian colonization.

Alexander Phimister Proctor
Stalking Panther
Modeled 1891-93 (cast between 1913-18)
9 3/4 x 37 1/4 x 6 1/2 in.
Denver Art Museum: Funds from the Directors of EE3 LLC in Memory of Jim Wallace, 2018.4. Photography by Jeff Wells, courtesy Denver Art Museum

Alexander Phimister Proctor began the model for this sculpture in New York—basing it on his memories of cougars in the Colorado Rockies and his observations of big cats in the Central Park Zoo—and finished it in Paris after moving there to study. Proctor thus distilled multiple observations of diverse big cats to create this panther, whose expressive power he restrained within a bronze meant for display in the home.

Eugène Delacroix
Lion Hunt
Oil paint on canvas
36⅛ × 46¼ in.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: S. A. Denio Collection—Sylvanus Adams Denio Fund and General Income, 95.179. Photograph © 2023 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although the figures in this painting wear a mixture of North African and eastern Mediterranean clothing, Eugène Delacroix never observed a hunt during his 1832 trip to North Africa. Inspired by Old Master hunting scenes, Delacroix studied caged lions with his friend Antoine-Louis Barye at the Parisian Jardin des Plantes to create dynamic compositions whose fluid lines, bright colors, and thrilling subjects reinforce ideas of the “Orient” as a dramatic and savage place.

Charles Marion Russell
The Buffalo Hunt (Wild Meat for Wild Men)
Oil paint on canvas
24⅛ × 36⅛ in.
Courtesy Sid Richardson Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

By the 1880s, when Russell moved to Montana, the buffalo hunt was a thing of the past, with bison on the edge of extinction and Indigenous nations forced onto reservations. Relying on past artists, stories told by Blackfeet elders, and his observations and imagination, Russell produced representations of bison hunts in watercolor, oil, and bronze throughout his career. These reflect nostalgia for what Russell perceived as a simpler and more authentic past and his respect for Indigenous history and culture.

Near East to Far West: Fictions of French and American Colonialism is organized by the Denver Art Museum. It has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. Research for this exhibition was supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. It is presented with generous support from Keith and Kathie Finger, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Sotheby's, the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine and CBS Colorado.