Creating the West in art

Some of the earliest artistic renditions of the West, beginning in the 1820s, were the product of artists who went on exploratory expeditions, or who recorded American Indian delegations when they visited Washington and other cities in the East. In an effort to document native people of the West before the pioneer incursions, these artists were compelled by the tenets of Humboldtian science to collect a broad range of information that might help to reveal a divine order to the universe. In works like John Mix Stanley’s 1867 Group of Piegan Indians (Fig. 4) such motives are exposed in the painter’s close observation of costumes, customs, and landscape background. The animal painter William Jacob Hays (1830–1875), by contrast, showed more of a penchant for romantic moralizing in works such as Herd of Buffalo (c. 1862, Denver Art Museum). His message, which he shared with the earlier painter of American Indians, George Catlin (1796–1872), was that the ubiquitous bison of the prairies would soon be extinct.

In the 1840s a new symbol of the United States had emerged: the mountain man of the West. Recognized for their independence and enterprise, these figures were quintessential personifications of the quest during the Polk era to extend American control over the entire continent. Painters such as Charles Deas and William Ranney celebrated the mountain man’s ascendancy in the early 1840s with paintings like Long Jakes (Fig. 8), and his unceremonious demise the following decade (occasioned by changing tastes in fashion which led to the demise of the beaver hat) in The Wounded Trapper (Fig. 9). Both artists drew liberally from the literature of the day, but each had experienced the West firsthand and had direct knowledge of the type of people they were transforming into national heroes.
Following the Civil War Americans once again looked to the West to provide a symbol of national identity and unity, this time in the region’s magnificent landscapes. Two of the most heralded artists of the day, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, painted scenes that were at once redemptive, such as Moran’s Mount of the Holy Cross (Fig. 10), and monumental, such as Bierstadt’s Estes Park, Long’s Peak (Fig. 11). The public’s reverence of iconic western landscape imagery remained strong well into the 1890s.

With the generation that followed Bierstadt and Moran, the pendulum swung back to finding in the West a human figure who could represent the American spirit, and the mountain man of two generations past became the cowboy of the new century. Somewhat more complex as a symbol than his predecessor, the cowboy was in one interpretation an epic male who dominated nature and tamed the frontier, as in Remington’s Broncho Buster (Fig. 6), and, in an opposing version, a freewheeling carouser whose contempt for civilization was untempered by any sense of humanity, as in A Dude’s Welcome by Olaf Seltzer (1877–1957) (1909, private collection). Both interpretations have enjoyed lasting resonance with American audiences.

In the work of at least one prominent artist of the early twentieth century, Charles M. Russell, the American Indian also reemerged as an emblem of the American saga. Many of Russell’s images of the Northern Plains Indians revealed a sense of passing, suggesting that the West was slipping into the pages of history. His painting In the Enemy’s Country (Fig. 12) is exemplary. The figures, while commanding in presence, are cast in shadow. The backdrop, an opalescent Montana sky, hints at reverie rather than the present tense. It was a lament brimming with reverence for, rather than indignation about, the Indian’s role as a symbol of the American West. Russell was quite nearly a lone voice out west in his time for such sentiments.

The popular illustrators of Russell’s day typically were somewhat less sensitive, employing popular, sensationalized perceptions about the West, as seen in the brutal Gunfight by Newell Convers Wyeth (Fig. 14). Pictures like this, produced in collaboration with overwrought narratives, helped create the notion that the West was a place where violence was the only way to resolve conflict. Yet there were many other aspects of western life besides bloodshed that commanded the attention of artists and the public. Thomas Eakins’s Cowboy Singing (Fig. 15), for example, represents the antithesis of Wyeth’s view. In this canvas, a cowboy uses music as a means to alleviate the loneliness of his solitary existence, singing rather than shooting his way through his troubles. Cowboy songs, often laments about lost love or a bygone day, were entering the canon of American music as a novel vernacular art form in the 1880s and 1890s. Eakins celebrated that moment.

Both Wyeth and Eakins traveled west during their careers and were inspired, for a while at least, by the things they saw and the experiences they had. But another group of artists who went west found that they could not leave, either physically or spiritually, and that the impact of the place was not ephemeral. These were the painters who formed or joined the Taos Society of Artists in the second decade of the twentieth century. For them, the people and atmosphere of New Mexico proved so compelling that it became their home as well as their muse.

Many of the Taos painters worked for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad Company, and so their works promoted what their patron wanted to portray: a Southwest that was vanishing, exotic, inviting, quiet, accessible, and safe. For some of those painters, their vision of the land and its native people (both Pueblo Indians and Hispanics) assumed an idealized character. Artists like E. Irving Couse presented American Indians exactly as the railroad wanted the public to envision them, as timeless residents of an extraordinary world that was colored by reverie and a harmonious interplay of man and nature. In this scenario, the artist imposed his and or her and their sponsor’s identity on the subject, as in Crouching Indian by a Fire (Fig. 13). Counterposed with this interpretation were paintings by Walter Ufer (1876–1936) such as From Winter Pasture (c. 1925, Denver Art Museum), which addressed the realities of American Indian life in Taos, just as Hennings did, and afforded the subject of the work his own identity, common and unromantic though it may have been.

The Denver Art Museum’s expansion of its western galleries attests to an institutional pledge to find new insight into the art of the West. The museum has accepted the challenge of two generations of enthusiasm for a better, more balanced understanding of why the West mattered culturally and how the region’s art fits within the larger canon of American art.

1 The Whitney was added to an existing institution, the Buffalo Bill Museum, which had been founded in 1917 and opened in Cody in 1927. In 1969 the Whitney Gallery and the Buffalo Bill Museum were combined into one building and given a new name, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. 

2 For the catalogue of the Denver Art Museum’s first western art exhibition, see Royal B. Hassrick, Building the West (Denver Art Museum, Denver, 1955). 

3 Harold McCracken, Western Americana Art from the Collection of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyo., 1966), p. 3. 

4 Peter H. Hassrick, The Way West: Art of Frontier America (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1977), p. 8. 

5 Michael Edward Shapiro and Peter H. Hassrick, Frederic Remington: The Masterworks (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1988), pp. 12–13. 

6 The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920,ed. William H. Truettner (Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, Washington, 1991), p. vii. 

7 Quoted in Alexander Phimister Proctor, Alexander Phimister Proctor, Sculptor in Buckskin: An Autobiography, ed. Hester Elizabeth Proctor (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1971), p. 184. 

8 William H. Truettner, “Old West Meets New Art History: Some Reasons Why the Dust Hasn’t Settled,” in Peter Hassrick et al., Redrawing Boundaries: Perspectives on Western American Art (Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, Denver, 2007), p. 43.

PETER H. HASSRICK is the director emeritus of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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