Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, September 12, 2016

From the Homestead (5)--The Last of the Buffalo

"Now, boys, is our time for fun." That's what the hoity-toity artist said when he saw a mass of buffalo Comstock, the rancher, had spotted along the Republican River just a few miles east of Red Cloud and west of Superior, the last prime buffalo hunting ground anywhere in the States in 1863. "Our time for fun," the artist told them.

Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings hang in dozens of American art museums today, was on his way back east from California when he stopped in Nebraska. He and a newspaper man traveling with him stopped at the Oak Grove Ranch when he decided to try his hand--not at hunting buffalo but painting them. Comstock and his men armed themselves with rifles; Bierstadt packed brushes.

What fun? Bierstadt wanted to see an angry buffalo. "I want to see him so mad that he'll bellow and tear up the ground," Bierstadt told Comstock.

That kind of rage might take some doing, Comstock thought, might even get them killed. But the rancher aimed to please his famous guest. He told Bierstadt that for his own benefit, he should put up that easel of his on a knoll east of the herd, a sweet spot for him to sit and create the long drawn prairie background Comstock was proud of, his land, the place he'd chosen to live.

Once that landscape was down on canvas, Comstock said he and son and a neighbor named Eubanks would create the kind of scene Bierstadt said he wanted to capture. The three of them would pick out a bull and wound him hot-blooded, then get him to pose. That was the plan.

All of 170 years later, this whole business sounds beastly and wasteful; but it is, after all, 170 years later. At the time, killing buffalo was no less rare than killing cattle for Big Macs. Besides, this killing had a lofty mission--this whole thing was being done in the cause of art.

Eubanks, the neighbor, would shoulder his rifle from a draw near Bierstadt and his canvas, should the mad beast decide for some strange reason not to sit still for the portrait. Comstock determined the best way to get the action the artist wanted was for him--for Comstock--to wound that big fellow with a .45, then get him more steamed by waving a red flag right in front of his fat face. Once that bull was on fire, Comstock figured to give him a round with the rifle and steer him out toward that knoll where he'd soon enough attain eternal life as art.

Plan worked perfectly. The wounded buffalo spit and spun and bellered, just as predicted, and charged Comstock, who was aboard a horse so expert he eluded the mad charge, all the while circling bloody animal and aiming him toward the artist.

But the story goes that Comstock played it out just a bit too close and, a good 300 yards away from that knoll, got himself beside the buffalo where that angry old bull couldn't see him. Just like that, that buffalo raised his huge shaggy head like a dying king and looked straight up the rise at Alfred Bierstadt, whereupon he started pawing and bellowing--the buffalo that is.

Bierstadt cried out for help and took off running faster than he himself ever thought he was able, and that insane bull made short work of the easel, bits and pieces flying all over the prairie. A couple of seconds later, he took off after the artist.

Now nobody can prove this part, but what Comstock remembered, he used to say, was -Bierstadt the artist running so fast his swallow-tail coat flowed out behind him so straight and hard the whole gang could have played a couple hands of euchre right there on the table that fancy coat became.

But why Eubanks didn't shoot that big fella was something Comstock couldn't help wondering. Then, finally, with that bull right there taking aim at that artist's behind, that rifle cracked and the buffalo met his end and fell in his tracks. For years, Comstock told people who'd listen to his storytelling that Bierstadt fell over himself, wiped out, but saved from "a fearful death."

Several days it took for him to recover, during which time he started in another canvas that ferocious image in front of him, in his mind and heart. He did everything he could to get it right. He was an artist, after all.

And that's the end of story, at least the Lost Creek part. But there's more.

In 1998, the U. S. Postal Service created a series of commemorative stamps to celebrate American art. One of them featured a massive painting (six feet tall and ten feet wide), wide as the prairie itself, by an artist named Albert Bierstadt, a truly American epic painting titled The Last of the Buffalo. You may have seen the stamp. May even remember it. In case you missed it, here 'it is.

There's more. Already a century before, Bierstadt's painting, The Last of the Buffalo, was put up for sale at the Chicago Exposition. It sold--hold your breath--for $75,000.

And no, that's not Comstock riding the majestic white horse; it's something like a a bare-naked cigar-store Indian deliberately chosen and outfitted to make rich Easterners drool.

If you look close, that landscape's not Nebraska either. No Cornhuskers can claim anything close to mountains like those in the background.

Albert Bierstadt knew how to paint sprawling landscapes and he also knew how to sell what he committed to canvas.

But Comstock, the rancher?--that man knew the real story, and was more than happy to tell it, right up to his grave.

No comments: