How the West was seen

Editorial Staff Art, Exhibitions

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, November/December 2013 |

The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1888. Signed “AB[conjoined]ierstadt” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 60 ¼ by 96 ½ inches.

The challenge of Go West!: Art of the American Frontier is to present us with a century (1830-1930) of familiar and unfamiliar images and to help us see them in revelatory ways. It is a challenge that the exhibition meets so beautifully as to constitute in itself a new frontier in the understanding of our inspiring and disturbing western heritage.

Most of the some 250 works on view come from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, a consortium of five museums and a research facility that should be better known as a repository for these masterworks. By the time Go West! has finished its run at the High Museum of Art on April 13, 2014, it will be.

Our first and our most durable impressions of the frontier derive from the paintings, photographs, and sculptures by artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Charles M. Russell, Edward Curtis, Fred­eric Remington, and from Native American art and artifacts. To these William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody added his high gloss of showmanship, nostalgia, and celebrity in the Wild West shows that were seen by an astonishing fifty million people internationally.

The question of what we are to make of this vast and complex legacy is one that the organizers and curators of Go West! have addressed with great delicacy in a series of essays and commentaries. The catalogue pub­lished by the High in conjunction with Yale University Press (titled Art of the American Frontier) is an indispensable companion to the exhibition.

We present here a tiny fraction of the images in Go West! along with brief commentary drawn from the catalogue to give a hint of its richness.

  • The Broncho Buster, by Frederic Remington (1861-1909), 1895. Bronze, cast number 21; height 23 ⅜, width 7 ⅝, depth 15 ½ inches. Except as noted, the works illustrated are in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming.

    “In art, the bronco buster became a symbolic tribute to the past and the taming of the Wild West. Frederic Remington was the first to sculpt a bronco buster in 1895, and critics im­mediately praised his skill ‘with so difficult a subject.'”

  • Yellowstone Falls by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), c. 1881. Signed “AB[conjoined]ierstadt” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 96 ½ by 60 ¼ inches.
  • Moccasins, Lakota (Sioux), Northern Plains, c. 1885. Tanned deer hide, dyed porcupine quills, cotton cloth, horse hair, tin cones, glass beads, and rawhide; approximate length 10 ½ inches.

    For Plains Indians, art was one expres­sion of their powerful sense of place and their “intense connections to their traditional homelands.” These moccasins “feature quills dyed the bright red color sacred to the Lakota and incorporate orange and blue quills to represent mountains.”

  • Golden Gate, Yellowstone National Park by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), 1893. Signed and dated “TM[conjoined]oran 1893” at lower right and monogrammed and dated “TM 1893” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 36 ¼ by 50 ¼ inches.

    “Moran, who had assumed the moniker of Thomas ‘Yellowstone’ Moran…staked his claim over the visual domain of the Yellowstone….With the establishment of Yel­lowstone as the first national park in 1872, Moran’s imagery was tied to it.”

  • Bear Bull, Blackfoot by Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952), 1926. Photogravure on tissue, 15 ¼ by 11 ½ inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

    “The popular perception of traditional Native Americans was so powerful that it guided visual images.” Photographer Edward Cur­tis aimed at documenting “how Indi­ans lived prior to their contact with the white man,” which often led him to alter his images to remove signs of contemporary life.

  • “Pretty Nose,” Cheyenne Girl by Laton A. Huffman (1854-1931), 1879. Gelatin silver print, 9 ⅞ by 7 ⅞ inches.

    Native American life on the reservations was rarely repre­sented in art or photography. “Native Americans penned in on reservations ran counter to the romantic ideals of the wild, noble savage….The photo­graphs of Laton A. Huffman stand as an exception.”

  • Last of Their Race, John Mix Stanley (1814-1872), 1857. Signed and dated “JMStanley/1857” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 43 by 60 inches.

    As early as 1857 Stanley’s paint­ings “offered a visual manifes­tation of the popular belief that Native civilizations were in the final stages of decline….” Later, as the “West opened up to settlement, however, imagery of Native Americans became more menacing.”

  • Painted hide by Codsiogo (Cadzi Cody; 1866-1912), c. 1900. Tanned hide and pigment, 55 ⅛ by 60 ¾ inches.

    “As Native artists endured rapid and dev­astating changes to their lives, art became the tool for the preservation of tradition.” The artist Codsiogo “painting in the pictographic style…created traditional objects from non-traditional material. His painted hide features commercial paints rather than natural pigments and cowhide rather than buffalo skin.”

  • Buffaloes (Bulls and Cows) Grazing in the Prairie by George Catlin (1796-1872), c. 1855-1870. Oil on paperboard, 18 ⅝ by 24 ⅞ inches.

    The extinction of the buffalo was the most effective tool for the subjugation of Native Americans and their culture. An early advocate for the Plains Indians, George Catlin “understood the inevitable: the nation was expanding westward, and Native Americans were not envisioned in those plans.” He also “believed that if he could control a unique body of work documenting a lost race, he stood to make a lot of money.”

  • The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1888. Signed “AB[conjoined]ierstadt” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 60 ¼ by 96 ½ inches.

    Disparaged in its time for being out of fashion and more recently misunderstood as politically incorrect, Bierstadt’s painting remains a powerful “pictorial parable about the ex­traordinary losses that were occurring in the West.” Although Bierstadt, like Buffalo Bill, had been an early and unashamed hunter of wild life even where prohibited, his eulogy here for the buffalo and the Native American indicates his eventual change of heart.

  • Shirt, Oglala Lakota (Sioux), Northern Plains, c. 1885. Tanned deer hide, glass beads, human hair, ermine, feathers, wool cloth, and dyed porcupine quills; 37 by 44 inches.

    “Initially acquired from European trad­ers, beads were quickly incorporated by Plains artisans….” Specialized beading techniques such as on this man’s war shirt “became distinct to these Native American cultures and were not found anywhere else in the world.”

  • Radisson and Groseilliers by Frederic Remington, 1905. Signed “Frederic Remington” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 17 ⅛ by 30 ⅛ inches.

    Remington’s illustration, which was featured in the popular periodical Collier’s Weekly, celebrates the exploration of unknown territory, though by 1905 the West of the artist’s youth was a part of history and a cause for regret, nostalgia, and this popu­lar depiction of wilderness adventure.

  • Madonna of the Prairie by William Henry Dethlef Koerner (1878-1938), 1921. Signed and dated “W. H. D./Koerner/1921” at lower right. Oil on canvas, 37 by 28 ¾ inches.

    Koerner’s painting “first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post as an illustration for The Covered Wagon by Emerson Hough.” When the story was made into a silent film the director “cast the female lead based on the pioneer woman in Koerner’s painting.” An idealized portrait of prairie life, it brings to mind Mark Twain’s comment to the effect that pioneer women had to endure all the hardships of the prairie and they also had to endure the pioneers.

  • The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874), c. 1860.  Oil on canvas, 17 ⅞ by 23 ⅞ inches.

    Some early depictions of the wilderness stressed its forbidding featurelessness. “A sense of this vast, unforgiving landscape is captured in images such as…The Lost Greenhorn, where a young man has ventured out onto the prairie…only to lose his bearings in the endless sea of grasses and brush.” After the Civil War, however, trans­continental travel by train, the enticements of land ripe for develop­ment, and the allure of tourism prompted more picturesque depictions of the landscape, as in the work of Thomas Worthington Whittredge and John Frederick Kensett and, of course, Bierstadt and Moran.

  • Bronco Buster by Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), 1915. Inscribed “CM Russell/[cow skull]/1915 ©” at lower left. Watercolor on paper, 11 by 16 ⅝ inches.

    Perhaps no other artist was as enthralled by western life as Russell, who left his comfortable St. Louis home at age sixteen and ventured west. “Russell lived and worked among the cowboys in Montana…yet his depictions of cowboys…reflect romance and nostalgia for a West of the past.”

  • Col. William F. Cody [1846-1917] by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), 1889. Signed and dated “Rosa Bonheur/ 1889” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 18 ½ by 15 ¼ inches.

    Aware of the importance of confecting and preserving his image, Buffalo Bill Cody befriended several artists during his show’s thirty-year run. Rosa Bonheur was among them. “The art the show inspired secured lasting legendary significance for the exhibition and its stars.”

  • Col. W. F. Cody, Buffalo Bill by Strobridge Lithograph Company, c. 1908.  Four-color lithograph on paper poster, 57 ¼ by 39 ⅜ inches.

    “Cody gazed out from widely collected photographs that showcased his trademark look….His like­ness graced posters displayed in store windows and pasted to fences, the sides of barns, and billboards from Los Angeles to London and points beyond.”

  • End of the Trail by James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), c.1918-1923. Bronze; height 33 ¾, width 26, depth 8 inches.

    Fraser’s End of the Trail “embod­ied the end of traditional Native American life and the passing of the frontier….On some level, Americans knew they had embraced and encour­aged the actions that led to the demise of the frontier. Nostalgia as an ab­dication of personal responsibility helped to make things right again, as it reinvented and created a West that had not even existed as it was remembered.”

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Go West!: Art of the American Frontier • The High Museum of Atlanta • to April 13, 2014 •