Sitting Bull by Andy Warhol originates from the artist’s Cowboys and Indians series from 1986. Though Warhol chose to exclude the image from the published version of the series, Sitting Bull has become a popular print that exemplifies Warhols exploration into the mythos of the “Wild West.”
The artwork is based on an archival photo of Sitting Bull, whose legacy as the chief of the Lakota Sioux remembers him with honor. Although in Sitting Bull A70 Warhol employs his trademark whimsy in pigment and form, Sitting Bull’s likeness glows with regal authority, his stoic pose and placid facial expression posed in a moment of tranquil reflection caught photograph, rather than an image of him in action hunting or in combat. The vivid coloring of Sitting Bull’s face and the highlighting lines that trace his features give the traditional subject a modern twist and illuminate him with the essence of spectral wisdom.
Sitting Bull is Andy Warhol’s homage to the leader of the Lakota, whose resistance against the violation of sovereignty by white settlers mounted an overwhelmingly successful defense at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. This battle for Native American territory is also known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” a reference to the colossal defeat suffered by the U.S. Army, led by General George Custer, an infamous leader of southern forces during the Civil War.
Cowboys and Indians was one of the last print series Warhol created before his sudden passing in 1987. It became highly popular and controversial for placing Native American leaders and artifacts beside idyllically rewritten figureheads of the American Western political and film scene as a commentary on the rosy color that has been painted over the historical period. Warhol himself was fascinated by Western films from a young age, noting them as inspiration in his own cinematic body of work. However, Andy’s arrangement of subject in this series seems to be a stylistic acknowledgment at the stain of America’s racist history and remembrance of the Native Americans on whose land we now occupy.
Sitting Bull, like the rest of the Cowboys and Indians series, continues to resonate authenticity while confronting themes of the romanticization of the history of the American West as well as the commodification of indigenous peoples. In Cowboys and Indians, Sitting Bull is accompanied by Annie Oakley, John Wayne, General Custer, Northwest Coast Mask, Kachina Dolls, Plains Indian Shield, Mother and Child, Geronimo, Indian Head Nickel, and Teddy Roosevelt.
Photo credit: “Sitting Bull” The Sioux Chief in command at the Custer Massacre. Photo by O.S. Goff, Zimmerman Bros, Publishers, 1881.