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Published: February 11, 2014
By: Stephen May
ATLANTA, GA. — The guns of the Civil War were barely silenced when Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, famously urged American youth to turn from wartime devastation and head West. During the course of the Nineteenth Century, Americans indeed went West.
Few aspects of American history have been more decisive in shaping the nation than the exploration and settling of the Western frontier. Fortunately, the outstanding but often overlooked Buffalo Bill Center of the West (BBCW) in Cody, Wyo., comprehensively weaves the varied threads of the Western experience — history and myth, art and Native American culture, guns and the natural wonders of the region — into the rich panorama that is the American West.
Drawn from the BBCW’s unparalleled collections, “Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West,” on view at the High Museum of Art through April 13, features major works of art, firearms and objects from Native American cultures that illuminate the westward movement.
The 257 objects, presented chronologically and arranged thematically, span a century, 1830–1930, showcasing ways in which visual images and stories of explorers and historical Western celebrities like Buffalo Bill Cody continue to inform American identity, values and character today.
Co-curators Mindy Besaw of BBCW and Stephanie Mayer Heydt of the High contributed to the valuable catalog.
“The art from this time period was instrumental in shaping our perceptions of the American West,” says Besaw. Co-curator Heydt adds that “The exhibition strives to thoughtfully present visual representations from the period from multiple cultural vantage points. Stories of the West not only continue to permeate American culture today, but also influence our contemporary values of opportunity and innovation.”
The exhibition begins with work by the first generation of artist-explorers, like George Catlin (1796–1872) and Alfred J. Miller (1810–1874), who traveled west with private expeditions or on their own and were stimulated to document the landscape, people and cultures they encountered. Starting in 1830, Catlin compiled a painted record of the “manners, customs and characters of an interesting race of people who are rapidly passing away.” His scores of paintings of individual Indians and depictions of their cultural traditions were presented in an “Indian Gallery” that for a time offered many Americans’ first view of land and life west of the Mississippi.
After the Civil War, artists such as Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Thomas Moran (1837–1926), William Tylee Ranney (1813–1857) and John Mix Stanley (1814–1872), accompanying private or government survey groups in the West, painted not only Native Americans, but strange geological formations and other natural wonders that were exhibited to awed audiences back East. As whites moved inexorably west, Indians fought back. Romanticized depictions of the “noble savage” were replaced by Native Americans as menacing obstacles to westward expansion.
Reflecting one response to the plight of outnumbered Indians in the path of the white man’s westward juggernaut, Stanley’s “Last of Their Race,” 1857, “suggested that Indians would eventually be buried under the waves of the Pacific,” says Smithsonian American Art Museum curator William H. Truettner.
German-born Bierstadt sought to capture the panoramic beauty of Western landscapes in a series of dramatic, monumental canvases. His “Last of the Buffalo” was, according to preeminent Western art historian Peter H. Hassrick, “a genuine effort at artistic lament for the tragic diminution of the bison herds of North America and the inevitable toll that loss would take on the Indian….”
During repeated trips to the West, British-born Moran created an impressive series of romantic and colorful oils and watercolors of the awesome natural wonders of the region, such as “Golden Gate, Yellowstone National Park,” which shaped Easterners’ view of the panorama. His gigantic oil, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” in which he subtly rearranged the topography for maximum expressive effect, was purchased by Congress for display in the US Capitol. In 1872, Moran’s watercolors of Yellowstone’s unusual rock formations, waterfalls, hot springs and geysers were passed among members of Congress and were instrumental in having Yellowstone designated America’s first national park.
By the 1860s, photographers joined survey expeditions, where they proved invaluable for capturing the new terrain with scientific accuracy and picturesque sensibilities. Large-plate photos by William Henry Jackson, Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins offered compelling images of Western wonders and made expansive visions of the West widely accessible through mass distribution and marketing.
While Plains Indians’ lives were being uprooted, 1870–1900, on display are items they crafted. They continued to craft objects from natural resources of the land, decorated with beadwork, quillwork, stitching or paint. These objects represent expressions of personal creativity and the rich cultural heritage of native peoples struggling against white encroachment. Among the standouts: an elaborate Shoshone eagle feather bonnet, brightly decorated moccasins, a Pawnee bear claw necklace and a Crow tanned deer hide shirt with colorful embellishments.
Although many artists’ depictions of Native Americans perpetuated the idea of a dying race, in reality, many aspects of traditional Indian culture and rituals survive to the present day. “As Native artists endured rapid and devastating changes to their lives, art became a tool for preservation of tradition and the recording of tribal histories,” says BBCW curator Rebecca West. Late Nineteenth Century, vividly colored artifacts showcasing dresses, shirts, feather bonnets, bags, hides and cradles document the vitality of surviving traditions.
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, westward expansion and the frontier came to an end, and “American interest in people and places of the West increased,” says Besaw. “Artists and writers responded by documenting the Old West and defining and celebrating ‘types’ of people who lived there: cowboys, Native Americans and frontier heroes.” Leading the way in romanticizing the Wild West as it faded into history were Frederic Remington (1861–1909), an Easterner and Yale dropout who made frequent trips to the West, and Charles M. Russell (1864–1926), a Midwesterner who became a cowhand and settled in Montana. In glorifying the West’s rugged past, they created much of the nostalgia that persists today.
Remington was an illustrator for popular publications before creating oil paintings of cowboys, Native Americans and soldiers in action and sculptures of bronco busters and Indians on the warpath. Remington’s heroic cowboys and noble savages influenced numerous artists and helped define America’s image of a West that was no more. Toward the end, Remington focused on color in Impressionist landscapes of the West, and a series of nocturnes that underscored his skills as an oil painter. He employed “spirited use of dynamic narrative and the celebration of an epic American figure: the cowboy,” says Hassrick.
Russell, known as the “cowboy artist,” painted oils and watercolors that conveyed wild action and adventurous tales of cowboys and Indians, often with a sly sense of humor. His legacy is maintained in a jewel of a museum, and his studio and house in Great Falls, Mont.
Also on view from this period are nostalgic and action-filled paintings by the likes of Harvey Dunn, William Herbert “Buck” Dunton and N.C. Wyeth, and bronzes by such talented sculptors as Solon Borglum, James Earle Fraser, Hermon Atkins MacNeil and Alexander Phimister Proctor. Wildlife and hunters were celebrated by painters like Bierstadt, Carl Rungius and Wyeth, and sculptors including Proctor, Remington and Henry Merwin Shrady.
“This body of images,” observes Auburn University art historian Emily Burns, “characterized the Western wilderness as a site dictated by its own set of rules and emphasized the endurance of the men who were able to navigate it…. These men were shown to adopt not only the tools afforded them by modern technology, such as rifles, but also the strategies of the animals themselves — speed, stealth and brute strength — in negotiating this terrain.”
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846–1917) used his frontier experiences to respond to America’s romance with the West. His innovative, action-packed traveling Wild West show featured cowboys and Indians, African American riders, Mexican vaqueros, marksmen, wild animals and dramatic recreations of scenes of frontier life. Among the stars: sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Lakota Chief Sitting Bull. Star attendee: England’s Queen Victoria.
Between 1883 and 1916, encouraged by promotional posters, cabinet cards, photographs and news reports from Los Angeles to London, “audiences totaling more than 50 million filled stands in ten countries to watch this dramatization of picturesque elements of the fading frontier,” says Stephanie Fox Knappe, a Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art curator. “The impact of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West on the popularization of the American West cannot be…[overestimated],” say exhibition organizers. “Cody introduced millions of people worldwide to the American West through his show.”
A section titled “Mourning the Past: Symbolic Depictions of the Native American” features turn-of-the-Twentieth Century artists who painted and sculpted nostalgic/idyllic scenes before most Indians were confined to reservations and the great buffalo herds were decimated. Fraser’s iconic bronze “End of the Trail,” depicting a forlorn Native American slumped on his sagging horse, and Charles Cary Rumsey’s less dramatic “Dying Indian,” treating the same subject, summarized popular perception of Native Americans in the early Twentieth Century.
In varying forms, painters such as Henry Farny, Russell and Joseph Henry Sharp depicted Native Americans with “wistful regret and yearning for the past,” says Besaw. Late in his career, Russell turned his attention to the lost world of Native Americans — noble figures from the past. “To reflect his nostalgic mood,” observes Besaw, “Russell bathed his warriors and Western landscapes in pastel colors and golden light,” giving them an ethereal glow. Focusing on the perceived glory days of the past, Russell and others perpetuated a “stereotyped image [that] had a lasting impact on American perceptions of Native Americans as a vanished race,” concludes Besaw.
This splendid exhibition, which only hints at the rich holdings and expansive installations of the five museums that make up the Buffalo Bill Center, should encourage visits to the museum in Cody. It is a fascinating, specialized museum whose holdings document the case for making art of the American West a distinct discipline within art history.
The 176-page, profusely illustrated Art of the American Frontier From the Buffalo Bill Center of the West serves as exhibition catalog. It includes insightful essays by Besaw, Heydt, Hassrick and other experts. Published by the High Museum in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $33.75, hardcover.
A concurrent exhibition, “Today’s West: Contemporary Art from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West,” showcasing works created over the past 50 years, is at Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Ga., also through April 13.
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