As a young man, Buffalo Bill lived an exciting life on the frontier. He delivered mail on the Pony Express, drove a stage coach, and was a scout for the United States Cavalry. His full name was Col. William F. Cody. By 1889, the year this portrait was painted, the Wild West was much tamer. Railroads had taken the place of the Pony Express and stage coaches. The Indian wars had ended. But he is painted in a fringed and embroidered buckskin jacket looking alertly around him from his handsome white horse as he might have done on a scouting mission. The short brownish-green grass and the low trees look like Nebraska, but the picture was painted near Paris.
Colonel Cody had discovered that people living in cities in the Eastern states wanted to see what it had been like out on the Great Plains. So he had put together ``Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show'' for them. It was so popular that he took it to England, and then to France. When the show took ship for Europe, a New York newspaper reported that his company had 115 Indians, including squaws and papooses, 48 cowboys, half a dozen women who could ride and shoot, 20 buffaloes, 25 mustangs, and 186 horses!
Although enormous crowds including kings and queens visited the show, no one was more keenly interested than the artist Rosa Bonheur. This unusual woman was already known for her animal paintings at the age of 19. She grew steadily more famous. She became attracted to the West when she met the American artist, George Catlin. He brought braves of the Iowa tribe as well as his paintings of Indian life to Paris in 1846. So, 43 years later, she eagerly made Buffalo Bill's acquaintance and invited him to her studio. He gave her permission to visit his Wild West Show at any time so that she could meet the Indian families.
The live buffaloes delighted her and she made 17 paintings of them, together with Indians. She also painted this portrait, which Cody liked so much that he had it shipped home to his wife at once. Later, it was widely used on his posters. Other advertisements showed Rosa Bonheur in the process of sketching him.
These two very different people had much in common. Both loved animals. From childhood, Rosa had surrounded herself with as many animals, both domestic and wild, as she could. Buffalo Bill loved his beautiful horses and his shaggy buffaloes. They both felt women should have the right to vote and do things that only men did at that time. Women like Annie Oakley were employed in his Wild West Show as sharpshooters and riders at equal pay with the men. Rosa Bonheur liked to wear men's trousers and told her women pupils to be as diligent as men with their painting. She herself had gained all the highest honors the French art world could give and was famous in England and the United States as well.
Although they couldn't speak each other's language very well, it may have been this shared sense of what was right that helps to make this portrait so attractive and true.