The Last of the Buffalo is Albert Bierstadt's final, great, western painting. Measuring six by ten feet, it mirrors in size his first massive oil, Lake Lucerne (1858), also in the National Gallery of Art collection. The ambitious landscape combines a variety of elements he had sketched during multiple western excursions. Because of its composite nature, the view incorporates many topographical features representative of the Great Plains: the dead and injured buffalo in the foreground occupy a dry, golden meadow; their counterparts cross a wide river in the middle ground; and others graze as far as the eye can see as the landscape turns to prairies, hills, mesas, and snowcapped peaks. Likewise, the fertile landscape nurtures a profusion of plains wildlife, including elk, antelope, fox, rabbits, and even a prairie dog at lower left.
Many of these animals turn to look at the focal group of a man on horseback locked in combat with a charging buffalo. In contrast with his careful record of flora and fauna, the artist's rendering of this confrontation and its backdrop of seemingly limitless herds is a romantic invention rather than an accurate depiction of life on the frontier. By the time Bierstadt painted this canvas, the buffalo was on the verge of extinction. The animals had been reduced in population to only about 1,000 from 30 million at the beginning of the century. Scattering buffalo skulls and other bones around the deadly battle, Bierstadt created what one scholar described as "a masterfully conceived fiction that addressed contemporary issues"—one that references, even laments, the destruction wrought by encroaching settlement. However, at about this time, efforts to preserve the buffalo began to garner support. In 1886, when Smithsonian Institution taxidermist William T. Hornaday traveled west, he was so distraught by the decimation of the buffalo that he became a preservationist. He returned to Washington with specimens for the Smithsonian and also with live buffalo for the National Zoo, which he helped establish in 1889—one year after Bierstadt completed this painting.
lower right: Albert Bierstadt
Collection of the artist, New York City; acquired by Edward Bierstadt, New York City, by 1908; (American Art Association, 1908); purchased by D.G. Reid, New York; acquired by Mary Stewart Bierstadt [Mrs. Albert Bierstadt], New York City, by February 1909; acquired 19 April 1909 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Boussod, Valedon et. Cie, Paris, 1889 [following the Salon].
- Salon de 1889, Societé National des Artistes Français, Paris, May-June 1889, no. 248, as Chasse aux bisons.
- Union League Club, New York, January 1889, no. 14.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, May-July 1890, no. catalogue.
- Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, Fifth Annual Exhibit, September 1890, no. 528.
- Possibly Internationale Kunst-Ausstellung, Verein Berliner Künstler, Berlin, 1891, no. 2005.
- Life on the Prairie: The Artist's Record, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, May-July 1954, unnumbered checklist.
- Westward the Way, City Art Museum of Saint Louis, October-December 1954, no. 89.
- Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro..
- 200 Years of American Painting, City Art Museum of Saint Louis,1964, unnumbered catalogue.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- Albert Bierstadt, Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Whaling Museum, New Bedford; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1972-1973, no. 86 (not shown in New Bedford).
- Corcoran [The American Genuis], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- The American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection and the Corcoran Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1981, no. 13.
- Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Brooklyn Museum; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1991-1992, no. 68.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 55 (shown only in Washington).
- Nature as Nation: 19th-Century American Landscapes from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 August 2008-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 43, repro. 44.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959: 52, repro.
- Strong, Lisa. "Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 36, 170-173, 273, repro.
- Valance, Hélène. Nuits américaines: L’art du nocturne aux États-Unis, 1890-1917. Paris, 2015: 188-189, color fig. 78.