This is one of four extant versions of this rare subject: a ceremonial circle of buffalo skulls that Miller found on the upper Platte near the party’s encampment. This sketch is likely the preparatory one for the watercolor that was part of the Walters commission as the two paintings are very close in composition. Moreover, this sketch bears the number “104” at the lower right, which corresponds to the number of the rough draft of the text Miller prepared to accompany the Walters paintings.
Curiously, in each version of this painting, the circle is shown with one open side. In one of two slightly different rough draft texts, Miller explains that the opening was meant to serve as an entrance into the ring. However, the circle in Plains belief stands for the unbreakable circle of life. Considering the symbolic importance of a complete circle, it seems more likely that the circle Miller saw had been damaged rather than left open.
Although the moon is just barely visible behind the clouds at the mid-right, Miller shows its reflection to the left of the Indian figure and his horse. Miller also articulates the reflections of moonlight off the smooth bison horns by applying dabs of thick white paint at the tips of each horn. The strong contrast of the dark blues and olives of the nocturnal landscape with the white skulls adds a sense of drama to the image.
LR: Medicine Circles near the Platte 104
The artist; by descent to L. Vernon Miller, Baltimore; [M. Knoedler and Company, New York, NY, 1949]; [?]; Thomas Gilcrease, Tulsa, OK; present owner by gift