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The Art of Mort Künstler / The American Spirit / The Old West

Here you will find a pictorial chronicle of the drama and excitement of American History. These paintings give the viewer an insight into the tumultuous life of this young nation that mere words cannot achieve.

Splitting the Herd

I visited Yellowstone in 1987 with my good friend Jim Court, a former park ranger. While traveling through the beautiful La Mar Valley, we came across a small herd of bison. We had already seen many of these majestic animals, but the setting was so magnificent that in spite of rules about visitors staying in their cars, I jumped out and began visualizing a painting. In my mind’s eye, the road and the cars became an enormous buffalo herd during an Indian attack. The sunlight bouncing off the river was just right; the colors of the grass, sky, and animals were perfect. I began sketching and took photographs in preparation for a painting I knew I would do soon.

In the early seventeenth century, as many as 40 million bison grazed the plains from Mexico to Canada. About that time, the Plains Indians started using horses for hunting. Mounted and armed with only lances or arrows, the tribes of the Great Plains perfected buffalo hunting.

This painting shows a small party of Crow engaged in a typical but dramatic hunting maneuver. This was one of the most effective methods mounted Plains Indians used to hunt. Translated from several Indian languages as “the surround,” the tactic called for two lines of mounted men to charge a herd of buffalo from opposite directions, gallop around it in an ever-restricting circle, and kill the herd’s leader. As the remaining bulls and cows panicked, the riders bisected the herd, firing arrows or lancing animals as they went.

Armed with heavy-caliber rifles, the whites one day would hunt these beasts into near extinction. By the 1890s the Canadian government established an Alberta preserve to nurture its last herd of wild bison. The United States soon followed, setting up one bison preserve in western Montana and another in Yellowstone National Park.

Date Created: 1988

Medium: Oil on canvas

Image Size: 32” x 54”

Signature Location: Signed and dated lower left: © MKunstler '88


All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2020. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.