Published: April 23, 2002
By Stephen May
GREENWICH, CONN. – Few movements in human history have captured the popular imagination more than the taming of the American West. From the time of our nation’s beginnings, the region west of the Mississippi has been viewed as a land of mystery and promise, a place to project dreams and ambitions, a symbol of the unknown and the future. The same zeal for freedom, opportunity and land that incited Europeans to settle the East Coast impelled their descendants to push westward into uncharted areas — and stimulated artists to add impetus to that movement in the Nineteenth Century.
After the opening up of the West gave rise to the idea of Manifest Destiny, artist-explorers were inevitably drawn to the grand drama and tremendous panorama of the western frontier.
Able and daring artists responded at first with careful renderings of the flora, fauna, terrain and Indians of this unknown region. They were followed by increasingly skilled painters whose robust depictions of the natural wonders and courageous settlers taming an immense continent helped shape America’s sense of itself.
Westward expansion, encouraged by our painters and sculptors, became a Nineteenth Century article of faith, molding our democratic values of rugged individualism, self-reliance, ingenuity, and optimism about the future. By the time historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared more than a century ago that our frontier days had ended when we reached the Pacific, the West was fully ingrained in the national spirit and psyche.
In recent years, revisionist historians have challenged those time-honored beliefs, pointing to the conflict, despoliation and Native American displacement that accompanied westward expansion. Few have contested, however, the significance of the artwork that emerged from this central chapter in America’s history.
The enduring appeal of imagery of the American West is reflected in a string of exhibitions this spring along the East Coast, ranging from Maine to Connecticut to New York. Each features artwork of timeless interest and importance to our national heritage.
Two exhibitions at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich offer comprehensive overviews of Western art, not only as interpreted by fine artists and sculptors, but in our popular culture. It is a nice combination.
“In Search of the Dream: The American West,” on view through June 2, features more than 150 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and artifacts by an impressive roster of important American artists. The valuable accompanying catalog was written by exhibition curator Deborah Brinckerhoff.
The companion show, “The West in Popular Culture,” on view through June 23, utilizes more than 100 objects to explore how advertising, media, entertainment and other forms of popular communication have helped create mythologized Western legends and heroes. A useful brochure/catalog accompanies this exhibition as well.
The fine arts show is divided into two sections: “The People of the West” and “New Visions of the West.” The former “approaches its expansive topic from a socio-anthropological point of view,” writes Peter C. Sutton, the Bruce’s executive director and chief executive officer in the exhibition catalog. It does this by means of subsections devoted to Native Americans, Spaniards, explorers, miners, settlers, ranchers, cowboys and tourists.
The peoples of the Southwest, early inhabitants of the region, are represented by handsome pottery works, while the Spanish, whose search for “God, gold and glory” began in the Sixteenth Century, are reflected in a mid-Eighteenth Century santo and a photograph of a mission in Tucson founded in 1792, among other images.
Artists accompanying various early expeditions and government-sponsored scientific survey teams conveyed the first views of the West to the rest of the nation. Examples on view include pioneering watercolor landscapes of the Rocky Mountains by Samuel Seymour, dating to around 1820, and Baltimore painter Alfred Jacob Miller’s accomplished depictions of Indians he encountered in the Rockies in the late 1830s.
For much of the Nineteenth Century, Native Americans were assumed to be a dying race, increasing the urgency with which artists sought to document their manners and customs. Starting in the early 1830s, Pennsylvania lawyer-turned-painter George Catlin executed portraits of individual Indians and scenes of Indian activities. Karl Bodmer, who joined German Prince Maximilian on a scientific expedition up the Missouri River in the early 1830s, recorded Native American life in accurate, ethnographic detail.
Later in the century, such artists as Joseph Henry Sharp and Eanger Irving Couse and photographers such as John K. Hillers and Edward S. Curtis continued to record the look and activities of the so-called “vanishing” people. Sharp drew on experiences living on a Crow reservation for evocative canvases such as “Crow Summer Encampment Along the Little Bighorn” (circa 1905).
Eventually settling in Taos, N. M., Sharp teamed up with other Paris-trained artists to form the celebrated Taos art colony. His distinguished colleague Couse specialized in dramatically lit, dignified depictions of Indians going about their daily tasks, as in “Indian Bead Maker” (circa 1910). “The Indian as a picturesque subject — often isolated in time and place — was of more concern to Couse than ethnographic accuracy,” observes curator Brinckerhoff in the catalog.
Perhaps the most familiar image of the fate of the American Indian is James Earle Fraser’s sculpture, “The End of the Trail” (1918). “The stooped, vanquished Indian on his downtrodden, windblown horse said the Indian was finished, or at least the Plains way of life was over,” writes Brinckerhoff.
The phenomenon of the Gold Rush of 1848, when hordes of prospectors and get-rich-quick adventurers filled with dreams of overnight wealth descended on California, offered many subjects for artists. Famed illustrator Frederic Remington’s “Prospectors Making Frying-Pan Bread” (circa 1893-97), created years after the fact for a magazine cover, showcases his talent for rendering crisp, detailed evocations of our western past.
For many, the most memorable images in the exhibition are likely to be those appropriately grouped under the rubric “Splendid Vistas.” Displayed are a variety of the idealized, romantic views of the untamed, beautiful West for which Americans yearned in the wake of the trauma of the Civil War.
Leading the charge was German-born and trained Albert Bierstadt, who applied dramatic techniques learned in Dusseldorf to breathtaking, albeit invented, panoramic western landscapes. In “Valley of the Yosemite” (1864), a golden atmosphere envelopes Alp-like mountain peaks towering over deer drinking from a lake. Bierstadt “created a Gothic German romantic stage-set composition in the operatic tradition,” writes Brinckerhoff, “- a vast space where large masses of rock loom up dramatically and a dreamlike haze casts a mood over the entire scene.”
Equally, if not more, striking than Bierstadt’s expansive, colorful depictions of the region are those by British-born Thomas Moran, who somewhat later in the century applied J.M.W. Turner’s swirling mists and romantic hues to an endless series of mountainscapes. For decades, Moran painted panoramic views of the Grand Canyon, exemplified in the Bruce show by a late version, “Grand Canyon of the Colorado” (1911).
Another subject that attracted Moran was the scenery around the Green River in Wyoming, famed for its magnificent, multihued buttes theatrically framing the river. Like Moran, German artist Rudolf Cronau, in “Green River, Wyoming” (1882), emphasized the beauty of the idyllic setting by leaving out the railroad terminus that by this time had defaced the once pristine place. Such “idyllic scenes,” Brinckerhoff notes, “became sacred images of the West that have endured in our collective imagination to this day.”
Images by William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge, Andrew Joseph Russell and Carleton Watkins demonstrate how these intrepid photographers overcame such obstacles as rugged terrain, heavy equipment and laborious printing techniques to produce awesome views of pristine western vistas. Standouts are Watkins’s “Mirror View from the North Dome” (1865), an albumen silver print featuring the watery reflection of Yosemite mountains that is worthy of Ansel Adams, and Muybridge’s “Yosemite, Teneya Canyon from Union Point” (1872), a marvelous albumen print that captures with detailed clarity the rocks and trees of a dramatic landscape.
This saga of wagon trains carrying homesteaders seeking land and opportunity in the West inspired painters, sculptors and photographers for much of the Nineteenth Century. Some emphasized the hardships along the trail, while others focused on intimate human dramas that inevitably developed during this movement. A Russell photograph, “Mormon Family,” likely taken in the 1860s or 70s, captures the resiliency of pioneer women grouped around a roughhewn frontier cabin.
W.H.D. Koerner’s tender canvas “The Homesteaders” (1832), showing Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series, being held as an infant by her homesteader parents standing in a field with their horses and plow, illustrated a Saturday Evening Post article. The painting is on loan from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., which preserves Koerner’s studio. Filled with artifacts collected on trips out West, the studio was moved from is original site in New Jersey.
Arthur Rothstein’s powerful “Farmer and Sons Walking in the Face of a Dust Storm” (1936), taken for the Farm Security Administration, captures the harsh experience of Dust Bowl living during the Depression. More recently, Harry Jackson’s animated bronze sculpture, “Pony Express” (1967), depicts an indomitable equestrian figure from that short-lived but legendary, chapter from the West’s past.
Even more lively is Remington’s iconic “Bronco Buster” (1895), the best known of the illustrator-turned-sculptor’s bronzes.
Paintings by such stalwarts of Western art as Carl Rungius, Charles M. Russell and Oleg Wieghorst helped perpetrate the romanticized view of the cowboy as the daring, undaunted, noble hero of the American West. Less expected is “Rawhide, Part I” (1904), a book illustration by the prolific Maxfield Parrish, better known for his fantasy-world images. It is an appealing view of a cowboy on horseback looking off into the distance under a sun-baked sky.
The role of British immigrant Fred Harvey in promoting tourism in the West by means of guided tours and souvenir shops, starting in the 1870s, is suggested by a photograph of his Grand Canyon gift shop. An extensive display of watercolors, jewelry and ceramic work by Native Americans, purchased at Harvey outposts and given to the Bruce Museum, amplifies the place of tourism in the Twentieth Century West.
Changes in the western landscape and population, along with altered aesthetic assumptions are showcased in the section entitled “New Visions of the West.” “Contemporary painters of western subjects,” observes Brinckerhoff, “share new visions, while responding to the same stylistic influences as American painters who depict other subjects.”
On view here are works by such well-known artists as John Sloan, who adapted his Ashcan School style to capture the beauty of the landscape and rituals of the native populace around his summer home in Santa Fe, and Marsden Hartley, the great early Modernist, who painted abstract images of Native American symbols even before he visited the Southwest.
Georgia O’Keeffe, who became a legendary figure after moving to New Mexico, is represented by a small landscape and a large floral abstraction that only hint at the grand, advanced images she created of her beloved Southwest.
Watercolorist Nelson Boren (born in 1952) creates large close-ups of jeans, glove, boots and spurs in figures whose heads are often cropped out, in perpetuating the tradition of cowboy art. An example in the Bruce show is “Watchin’ the Girls” (1998).
Of particular interest are highly accomplished, intriguing works by contemporary Chicano and Indian artists who deserve greater recognition. Mexican American artist Carmen Lomas Garza utilizes a deliberately naïve style to convey aspects of her experiences in the Southwest. Her “Nopalitos Para Ti” (1989), a color-filled gouache, puts one in mind of Mexican icon Frida Kahlo’s art.
Chippewa/Lakota artist David Bradley’s “American Indian Gothic” (1983), a wonderful lithographic takeoff on Grant Wood’s familiar “American Gothic,” is from the Bruce Museum’s collection. Skilled Hopi painter Dan Namingha is represented by an engaging, shimmering, acrylic tour de force, “Dreamstate #28” (2001).
In a humorous work that concludes the Bruce show, 38-year-old Cochiti potter Diego Romero utilized stylized heads from prehistoric Mimbres art to bring us right up to date with his ceramic view of “Chongo Brothers Watching the Simpsons” (2001). It is a fitting coda to this ambitious and entertaining survey of the art and cultural heritage of the West.
Curator Brinckerhoff’s fully illustrated, 77-page catalog is perceptively written and informative. Produced by the Bruce Museum, it will be especially useful to those seeking an overview of ways in which artists, over the past century and a half, have interpreted the American West.
The lively, complementary exhibition at the Bruce, “The West in Popular Culture,” explores the manner in which advertising, entertainment, media and other manifestations of popular culture have influenced — and generally romanticized — our view of the West. Featuring more than 100 objects, ranging from original “Buffalo Bill” Cody memorabilia to movie clips to Native American kitsch, the show suggests how our perceptions of the Old West have been shaped.
Particularly influential was a real life character out of the Old West, William F. “Wild Bill” Cody, who helped shape his own legend by turning his experiences as trapper, scout and expert marksman into a highly successful traveling show. Posters, dime novels and photographs recall “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.”
Cody’s star performer, the spectacularly accurate marksperson Annie Oakley, is evoked through a photograph, her gauntlets and 20-gauge Parker shotgun, engraved with her name.
The popularity of the Wild West Show’s shooting demonstrations, stagecoach chases, buffalo hunts and Indian war dances stimulated decades of films, radio programs and eventually television shows. Starting in 1903, classic Western movies made icons of cowboy heroes ranging from Tom Mix and William S. Hart to John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Film clips document how these actors, and filmmakers such as John Ford, developed the enduringly popular western movie genre.
Objects on view underscore the manner in which stereotypical images of America’s Indians have been planted in the public mind. They show how images of the feathered warrior, featured on everything from coins to stamps to Tiffany silver spoons to football helmets, have blurred the identity of our rich Native American culture. “For the last 150 years,” write Deborah Brinckerhoff, Cynthia Ehlinger and Anne Lanford in the exhibition publication, “the West has been shaped by the land, its history and visions of those who made it what they wanted it to be.” Permeating popular culture, the myth of the West “has reflected changing opinions and aptitudes in American culture,” generally idealizing a region far more complex than it has been depicted.
“Window on the West: Views from the American Frontier: The Phelan Collection” is at the Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA) in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., through April 28. It consists of some 60 works from the holdings of Arthur J. Phelan of Chevy Chase, Md., and additional works on loan from museums and private collections.
The Phelan display includes early views of the West in the 1830s and 40s by the likes of John James Audubon, Bodmer and Miller.
There is an intriguing canvas by Alexander Harmer (1856-1925), who studied under Thomas Eakins in Philadelphia and became one of Southern California’s first significant painters after settling in Santa Barbara. He specialized in colorful genre scenes of Old California. Harmer’s “Santa Barbara County Club” (circa 1900) depicting a horse-drawn carriage driving by the low-slung club puts one in mind of Eakins’s celebrated “A May Morning in the Park (The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand)” (1879-80).
Among the works on view by Native American artists is Lone Wolf’s “Scouts on Watch” (1921) showing two Indian scouts on horseback surveying a panoramic landscape.
The “Window on the West” section organized by NCMA curators Constance Schwartz and Franklin Hill Perrell includes paintings by Bierstadt and Thomas Hill and bronze sculptures by Remington.
Although he became the most enduringly visible delineator of scenes of the Old West, Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was born in the North Country of New York State and dropped out of Yale to pursue his passion for the West. The Frederic Remington Art Museum, housed in a mansion in Ogdensburg, N.Y., the town in which the artist grew up, has a large collection of his artwork and memorabilia, most of it bequeathed in his widow’s estate in 1918.
The museum, founded in 1923, contains important Remington paintings, drawings and bronzes, along with his easel, paintbrushes, scrapbooks, and even his hockey stick and cigars. (Brian W. Dippie’s The Frederic Remington Art Museum Collection, published last year by Abrams, offers an excellent overview of the artist’s life and examines more than 100 of the most important works in the collection. In so doing, it traces Remington’s evolution from illustrator to artist. Dippie, a noted Western art authority, calls the Remington Museum “the essential beginning point for a study of the man.”)
Since the museum is somewhat out of the way for many people, the current exhibition, “Frederic Remington: Illustrator, Sculptor, Painter,” featuring 28 paintings and sculptures, at the Everson Museum of Art in more convenient Syracuse, is especially welcome. It is guest curated by Kevin Moss, an independent museum consultant.
On view are Remington’s original illustrations for popular turn-of-the-century magazines, such as the typically vivid action scene of Indians on the frontier, “A Peril of the Plains” (circa 1890), and an 1895 ink-wash-on-paper depiction for Harper’s Weekly of a group of rifle-toting Indians on horseback posed amid the splendors of the Tetons in the course of the so-called “Jackson Hole War.”
Two of Remington’s magnificent, animated bronze sculptures, the celebrated “The Bronco Buster” (1895) and “The Mountain Man” (1903), reflect his unparalleled skill at modeling intrepid riders precariously perched on feisty Western broncos.
Of particular interest to those who only associate Remington with views of the American West will be seldom-seen depictions of his properties in New York State. “Endion” (1908), a small, freely brushed oil, shows the substantial home set amid trees across a sweeping lawn, where Remington and his wife lived for nearly two decades in New Rochelle. In his book, Dippie says the painting is “reminiscent” of a Claude Monet Rouen Cathedral canvas.
In 1909 the Remingtons moved into a grand new house on an estate in Ridgefield, Conn., but he died there at the end of the year following an emergency appendectomy. The New Rochelle house is long gone, but the Ridgefield home, a substantial stone structure, survives in private hands.
Remington’s ties to his beloved North Country were solidified during summers at “Ingleneuk,” a rustic property he purchased in 1900 on an island in the St Lawrence River near Alexandria Bay. A series of oil sketches, influenced by his affinity for the work of American Impressionists, convey his skill as a landscape painter and affection for the woodsy site. “Boat House at Ingleneuk” (circa 1903-07), a Monet-like view across water to his pea-green boathouse; “Studio at Ingleneuk” (1907) and “Pete’s Shanty” (1908) suggest Remington might have achieved considerable success as a landscape painter had he not died so prematurely.
The Everson show will surely tempt visitors to make the trek to Ogdensburg to see more of the grand trove of works at the Frederic Remington Art Museum.
“Beyond the Frontier: The Mythic West in American Art and Culture,” which recently closed at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, was organized by Bowdoin professor Matthew Klingle to stimulate thinking about the history behind our views of the Old West. Using primarily photographs from the museum’s collection, Klingle suggested that the “idealized frontier was often wildly, violently out of step with the historical realities of the West.”
Photographs taken by Watkins, Hillers and Edward S. Curtis, as well as by Adams, Garry Winogrand, Emmet Gowin and Danny Lyon “illustrate some of the contradictory ways that Americans have fashioned meaning out of the frontier idea from the seventeenth century to the present,” in Klingle’s words.
As documented in the Bruce Museum exhibition, Watkins (1829-1916) was one of the earliest and finest American landscape photographers of his time, using rudimentary equipment to immortalize sublime glimpses of the West. His famous images of the pristine and then virtually unknown Yosemite Valley, as exemplified by the awesome yet peaceful “Three Brothers, Yosemite” (1864-65), helped expose to the world the natural wonders of this beautiful area.
Adams (1902-84), one of America’s most popular photographers and best-known environmentalists, was represented in the show by his famous, hauntingly evocative “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941). Small and focused, the Bowdoin exhibition offered both educational insights and aesthetic rewards for students and other visitors.
All in all, these attractive exhibitions provide rewarding insights in the variety, quality and messages of art of the American West. It is a theme that never seems to lose its appeal.
Bruce Museum of Arts and science is at One Museum Drive (just off I-95, Exit 3) in Greenwich, Conn. For information: 203-869-0376. Nassau County Museum of Art is at One Museum Drive (just off Northern Boulevard, Route 25A) in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y. For information, 515-484-9337. Everson Museum of Art is at 401 Harrison Street (off I-81, Exit 18, downtown across from the War Memorial) in Syracuse, N.Y. For information, 315-474-6064. Bowdoin College Museum of Art (Walker Art Building) is located on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, Maine. For information, 207-725-3275.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm