An Artist’s Artist Mandan warrior Four Bears captivated Old West artists through the power of his own art.

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Notable Western Art Lots Included (All images courtesy Scottsdale Art Auction unless otherwise noted).

Mandan warrior Four Bears has been praised for his artistic genius, which may explain why artists of the Old West have felt compelled to portray him. Collectors at Arizona’s Scottsdale Art Auction on April 7 purchased two examples.

“Among the most beautiful testimonies of the arts of the prairie” and displaying the “highest level of achievement that are known to this time” is how Four Bears’s drawings were commended by ethnologists Horst Hartmann and Walter Krickeberg, respectively.

four bears old west artists true west magazine
Kenneth Riley’s oil of Four Bears went for a $75,000 bid.

Yet George Catlin created controversy in our understanding of early Plains Indian art because of Four Bears. In 1957, ethnologist John C. Ewers theorized that a shirt Catlin claimed Four Bears had painted while Catlin was at Fort Clark in 1832, compared to Four Bears’s pictographic records preserved by Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer the following year, revealed that Four Bears had undergone a phenomenal change as an artist, under Catlin’s influence.

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John Coleman’s oil of Four Bears hammered down for $135,000.

But Bill Holm undid Ewers’s theory, at the 1984 Plains Indian Seminar at what is today’s Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming. Holm proved Catlin’s shirt had been an “artifake” painted not by Four Bears, but by Catlin. He argued that Four Bears’s unique style could not have been influenced by Catlin, but could possibly have been shaped by Euro-American representations over the nearly a century that the Mandans came in contact with explorers and traders.

four bears old west artists true west magazine
George Catlin painted this oil of Four Bears in 1832. The artist created controversy when he also claimed he collected a hide shirt Four Bears had painted, which Bill Holm proved unlikely.
— Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr., 1985.66.128 —

What has never been in dispute was Four Bears’s superior talent as an artist. He retained the “flat, frontally oriented shoulder stance and decorative detail…in the true tradition of the pictographers of his country,” Holm stated. While also creating, Holm added, “pictures with greater details of dress and more naturalistic representation than was usual in Plains Indian paintings….”

four bears old west artists true west magazine
History continues to be a big draw for art collectors. The top lot at the Scottsdale Art Auction went to John Clymer’s Spotted Buffalo; $400,000. The oil portrays the 1873 Beef Issue, as Sioux from Red Cloud Indian Agency chased Texas Longhorns like they used to chase buffalos on the free range.

Four Bears went on to become the second chief of the Mandan tribe in 1836. The following year brought devastation to his tribe. Smallpox wiped out nearly everyone, including Four Bears, who died on July 30. The Four Bears preserved in paint does not show the scarred face he wore in death.

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Scottsdale Art Auction sold two of the highest-selling Gerard Curtis Delano artworks this year: Dineh, the top lot at the Leanin’ Tree Museum auction on January 19-20.

Collectors made $9.4 million on their Western and wildlife artworks sold at the Scottsdale Art Auction.

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The Victors ( pictured above, $380,000).

Upcoming Auctions

July 28, 2018

Western Art

Coeur d’Alene Art Auction (Reno, NV)

CDAArtAuction.com • 208-772-9009

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The top-selling Joseph H. Sharp oil at the auction was a mise en abyme, The Artist in the Studio Mirror; $175,000.

July 28-29, 2018

Vintage Movie Posters

Heritage Auctions (Dallas, TX)

HA.com • 877-437-4824

True West Best of the West 2018 Art and Collectibles

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Meghan Saar

Meghan Saar is the editor of True West, the world’s oldest, continuously published Western Americana magazine. She has worked in niche publication content development since 2002, and she has a B.S. in Journalism and Creative Writing from the University of Arizona—Tucson.