Introduction Andy Warhol was a major force in the New York City art scene in late twentieth century. Unlike the artists of the previous centuries Warhol did not create art to celebrate and revere that which was prized in society, but rather used everyday objects such as a Campbell’s soup can and repetitive images of Marilyn Monroe. This type of pop art was aligned with the changes that were occurring in the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Warhol’s career. Warhol often focused on representing popular images and figures in new ways. The Sitting Bull painting was created in the mid1980s. Warhol was murdered soon after he painted the Cowboys and Indians series which the Sitting Bull painting is part of. It includes many iconic images of the Wild West.
The Sitting Bull paintings are a series of screen printed black and white photographic images on Lennox Museum board. The process was to screen printed poster sized images, which were then then painted over in very bright colors with a focus on the colors of fire and water. The photograph is Sitting Bull from the chest up, wearing traditional clothing. Visible are a traditional feather headdress, a pipe. Many of the features are unrealistic, such as the use of a pale blue for the skin. The feathers are colored in a way that they look almost like small flames of fire. Sitting Bull was a Sioux Chief who is remembered for his wisdom and resistance. One feature of the paintings, which is very much in the pop art style, is the use of lighter lines, rather than darker lines, to outline the elements of the object. This was also a technique that Warhol used often in other paintings. The design is balanced, with the image centered well, Sitting Bull peering to the viewer’s left and carrying a pipe which goes upward from the lower left corner in parallel to the gaze.
Warhol had stated himself that he was not trying to recreate the Wild West, but rather he was exploring the idea of the Wild West in popular perception (Josephy, 42). The Sitting Bull image is an iconic one of the last of the Native Indians attempting to resist the settlement of America, but with Warhol’s work the familiar image becomes something else.
Pennsylvania State University’s Palmer Museum of Art provides its expert opinion that the painting is one which challenges concepts of the hero in light of the Wild West and its frontier, giving voice to the Native American point of view. Sitting Bull was known both as someone against the United States, but also as someone with profound philosophies and principles.
Looking at the painting, I did not feel that I was being challenged with regard to my understanding of the Wild West, so it is hard to accept the Palmer Museum interpretation. I think Warhol was representing through the bright colors and highlights the image that he had as an old man of the image that he knew well as a child.
Warhol painted the Sitting Bull series as one of several images of the Wild West and native culture that we reinterpreted in the trademark Warhol style and painted screen print technique. It is hard to say whether he was being sentimental about perhaps the westerns he saw as a boy, or if he was concerned with a more political and philosophical agenda regarding the treatment of native people. Either way, Warhol draws attention to Native American issues with this painting.

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  • Josephy, A. “Warhol, Andy Meets Sitting-Bull-Pop-Artist Guru Celebrates Cowboys and Indians.” American West 23.1 (1986): 42-45.
  • Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc. “Andy Warhol: Cowboys and Indians”. The Palmer Museum of Art. (2010).
  • Warhol, A. Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull). University of Michigan Museum of Art. (1986).