Buffalo Bill’s Unlikely Influence on Picasso and Gauguin

Karen Chernick
Jun 19, 2019 4:24PM

Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with a hat, 1893–94. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Paris was abuzz during the summer of 1889. It was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. A world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle, marked the historic centenary. The city skyline was forever changed in honor of the event with the addition of the newly completed Eiffel Tower—then the tallest building in the world.

Amid all of this feting of French fraternity, an American cowboy galloped into the city of light and nearly stole the show. Buffalo Bill—the stage name of William F. Cody, a scout, hunter, and showman who was a romantic emblem of the American West—brought his Wild West show to Paris for the first time. The five-month summer engagement mesmerized Parisians of all social classes, from high society to bohemia. “Everything American became the fad during our stay [in Paris],” Cody wrote in his autobiography. “Cowboy hats appeared everywhere on the street.”

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World / Courier Litho. Co., Buffalo, N.Y., 1896. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


The Wild West show displayed American frontier life on a 30-acre compound that housed around 100 Native Americans and sharp-shooter Annie Oakley, as well as buffaloes and horses brought over from the United States. The wildly popular entertainment captivated the imaginations of Parisian artists and left an unexpected, horseshoe-shaped imprint on the city’s art history. Avant-garde painters were attracted to Buffalo Bill as a kindred pioneer exploring the unknown. In turn, Cody encouraged artistic documentation of his spectacle because it granted him cultural validity.

“Cody is one of the few particular Western ‘heroes’ who was popularly and repeatedly depicted in Western art to the extent that his image was and is immediately recognizable,” said Karen McWhorter, curator of the Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. “In print and visual imagery, Cody became a true celebrity.”

French animal painter Rosa Bonheur saw the Wild West show early on and became a sort of artist-in-residence. Cody granted her free reign to sketch on the grounds as she pleased. “Buffalo Bill was extremely good to me,” Bonheur later recalled. “I drew studies of [his] buffaloes, horses, and weapons, all tremendously interesting.”

Rosa Bonheur
Studies of Cows, Hens, Roosters, a Goose and a Sheep
Cross Gate Gallery

Thanks to this access, Bonheur created around 50 paintings and sketches, including an equestrian portrait of Cody that she gifted to him in gratitude. The artist rarely painted people, but her depiction of Buffalo Bill became iconic. It was used in a publicity poster for the Wild West show a few years later. The poster depicts Bonheur at her easel between Cody and Napoleon Bonaparte, both regally seated on white horses. In the picture, Bonheur ignores the former French emperor and paints Cody instead.

Bonheur wasn’t alone in sketching the Wild West campgrounds. Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin visited Buffalo Bill’s show and drew Native American figures and horses. The artist was most impressed by the wilderness-loving persona of Buffalo Bill, though, and soon imitated his stylish combination of long hair and Stetson cowboy hat. Cody may have also inspired Gauguin to explore new frontiers on his own.

“[I] walk about like a savage, with long hair,” Gauguin wrote the next summer from the French seaside town of Le Pouldu. “I have cut some arrows and amuse myself on the sands by shooting them just like Buffalo Bill.” He was still sporting this unruly hairdo when he voyaged to Tahiti in 1891, in order to live closer to nature. Among the items he brought with him across the globe was a Stetson, probably bought from one of the Exposition Universelle souvenir shops, where cowboy hats were among the most popular novelties.

The revolver believed to have killed Van Gogh. Photo by Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images.

Parisian teenager René Secrétan also bought a souvenir cowboy hat after seeing the Wild West show along with a fringed buckskin jacket and chaps. When his family summered in the French town of Auvers the following year, a revolver received from the innkeeper at the Ravoux Inn—the guesthouse where Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was staying—completed his Buffalo Bill ensemble.

Secrétan bullied Van Gogh, hiding a snake in his paint box and salting his tea. His handgun may have even been responsible for the Dutchman’s death, according to the most recent biography of the artist, Van Gogh: The Life (2011). Two theories have been proposed: Either Secrétan accidentally shot the painter (a possibility never disclosed by Van Gogh before he died), or Secrétan armed the artist for his suicide. Either way, a far-reaching claim could be made that without the beguiling image of Buffalo Bill, a gun would have never crossed Van Gogh’s path that fateful summer.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show continued to tour Europe and North America after 1889, returning to Paris again in 1905 and inspiring a new crop of artists. Its pavilion that year had a seating capacity of 17,000, but was still often sold out, with many artists in attendance. Neo-ImpressionistMaximilien Luce, for example, saw the show during this second run and painted color-speckled canvases of Native Americans on horseback.

Buffalo Bill at the Exposition Universelle of Paris, 1889. Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images.

Rosa Bonheur, Col. William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), 1889. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Cody also made his way into the muted artworks of Cubist founders Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Both artists were avid readers of the Buffalo Bill adventure novels, and in Picasso’s letters to Braque during their close-knit Cubist years, he sometimes signed off “ton pard”—short for the cowboy term of affection, “partner.”

Of Picasso’s six Cubist portraits, one was devoted to Buffalo Bill. In the 1911–12 painting appropriately titled Buffalo Bill, the cowboy’s hat is translated into geometric shapes against the canvas, which is tinted a buckskin shade of brown. Braque also alluded to Cody in a 1913 papier collé. The Draughtboard: Tivoli-Cinema features a pasted program of a movie theater’s coming attractions. The headlines include capitalized words for “COW-BOY” and “PARDO,” both subtle tilts of the hat to Buffalo Bill.

The rugged American cowboy and the sensitive Parisian artiste may not seem, at first, like agreeable partners. But Cody embodied the scout—a literal avant-garde, or advance guard— sent ahead to explore conditions at the fore. This quality made him a relatable figure for vanguard artists who were themselves forging into the visual wilderness. In Bonheur’s portrait of Cody he is a solitary horseman, scanning a horizon of uncharted lands—a fitting parallel for the many pioneering artists inspired by Buffalo Bill.

Karen Chernick