Akron Art Museum

photo by Richman Haire

Akron, OH




Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum


"Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" features 64 important paintings and sculptures from the 1820s through the 1940s by American artists fascinated with Indian and Hispanic cultures and the majestic landscapes of the western territories. The exhibition will be on view at the Akron Art Museum from September 16 through November 26, 2000. The artworks, which celebrate the landscape and pay tribute to Native Americans and their cultures, served to establish American art and its subject matter as new and exciting to audiences worldwide.

"This exhibition chronicles not only a century in the history of the settling of the West, but also over one hundred years of the history of representational painting and sculpture in America," said Barbara Tannenbaum, chief curator and head of public programs. "Lure of the West takes us back to the nineteenth century, when painting and sculpture were used to record and persuade as well as entertain. George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington - these names evoke dramatic scenes of action and adventure, majestic valleys and snowy peaks, and "eyewitness" glimpses into the lives of people long gone.

Lure also shows us the impact of twentieth-century modernism on the Taos School artists. While still painting representationally, they gave style, composition, form and color an emphasis equal to any narrative content. Epic in its scope, Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum gives us insights into the worlds of American history and of American art."

Lure of the West encompasses more than a century of art, moving from the excitement of exploration to the establishment of a national mythology about the West. The Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846 just as interest in western territories and peoples was expanding, played an active role in this story. The Smithsonian sent scientists and artists on various government expeditions to advise on land-use policies and gather art and artifacts into its rapidly burgeoning collections.

"First explorers and trappers, then settlers and immigrants were drawn to the lands and opportunities for a new life in the American West," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Artists were quick to discover new and exciting subjects in the vast wilderness, mountains, and prairies, as well as in the native and Hispanic peoples who lived beyond the Mississippi River."

Lure of the West features many portrayals of Native Americans and their relationship to a growing America. The earliest work in the exhibition is a group portrait of five Pawnees by Charles Bird King, made in the artist's Washington, D.C., studio in 1821, when the delegation of Indians traveled east to negotiate territory rights on behalf of their tribe.Wearing wampum ornaments, red face paint, bead necklaces, and fur robes, the figures appear as noble representatives of a sovereign nation; one proudly wears a "peace medal" depicting President James Madison.

Eighteen portraits of Native Americans and scenes of Plains Indian life by George Catlin form the exhibition's centerpiece. In the early 1830s the artist followed the path of explorers Lewis and Clark, traveling up the Missouri River into the Dakota Territories. These works are part of Catlin's famous "Indian Gallery" of approximately 500 paintings that he exhibited throughout the eastern United States and in the capitals of Europe, inspiring a wave of interest in the American frontier and Indian cultures.

John Mix Stanley chronicled Indian customs and people in 150 paintings that he placed on deposit at the Smithsonian in 1851, hoping they would be purchased by the United States government. The three works in the exhibition- - an Apache warrior, a buffalo hunt, and Osage scalp dance - were among the few paintings that were not in the Smithsonian Castle Building when it went up in flames in 1865, destroying most of Stanley's lifework.

Several works from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, made after tribal groups were largely defeated and confined to reservations, reveal the regret and nostalgia felt by many American artists. A group of bronze-relief medallions by Olin Warner (1891) capture profile likenesses of tribal leaders who had fought bravely for their people. Three paintings by Joseph Henry Sharp, show Indians reviving old ceremonies and maintaining craft traditions, which were soon to become a new "Lure of the West" for a thriving tourist industry. Eanger Irving Couse's life-sized "Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe" (1909) presents a wise leader seemingly resigned to his fate. Walter Ufer's "Callers" (about 1926) imparts a domestic tranquility to Indian life.

A small marble sculpture by Mary Edmonia Lewis, "Old Arrow Maker" (modeled 1866, carved 1872), may evoke the artist's own childhood experiences. Born to an African American father and a Chippewa mother, Lewis was one of America's first woman sculptors, establishing a career in Italy in the neoclassical tradition, but selecting subjects that had personal resonance. Lewis attended Oberlin College before establishing a studio in Rome.

Artists' fascination with the West mirrored the nation's determination to settle the American continent coast to coast. Waves of miners, settlers, and soldiers pressed westward in a movement called Manifest Destiny--a phrase meant to imply that Europeans were destined by God to spread their religion and way of life--and in this process of nation building, they transformed the lands and devastated native cultures.

Several artworks show the ambitious enterprise that inspires so many to move west. Charles Christian Nahl and Frederick August Wenderoth followed the rush to California when gold was discovered there in 1848. Unsuccessful at mining, they turned to recording the life of the "forty-niners" in painting such as "Miners on the Sierras" (1851-52), which shows men at a placer mine recovering gold from a riverbed. Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze borrowed a famous phrase that embodied the concept of Manifest Destiny-"Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way" - or his 1861 oil study for a mural in the United States Capitol, showing a wagon train of settlers journeying to the Golden Gate near San Francisco.

The exhibition includes Albert Bierstadt's I0-foot-wide masterpiece, "Among the Sierra Nevada, California" (1868), showing deer drinking at a clear lake rimmed by towering peaks. Two smaller landscapes by the artist depict a sunrise view in California and a mountain range in Alaska, revealing how soon artists pursued even the farthest reaches of the new frontier. (left: Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, oil on canvas)

Thomas Moran's landscapes in the exhibition include views of the Upper Colorado River in Wyoming Territory, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Kanab Canyon in Utah. [The view of Kanab Canyon is based on studies Moran made while staying at a nearby fort, soon after Mormon settlers established the first permanent community at Kanab in 1870.] Two bronze sculptures by Edward Kemeys, one a small bear and the other showing a buffalo attacked by a wolf, depict animals native to the western regions. (left: Thomas Moran, Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River, Wyoming Territory, 1842, oil on canvas)

Sharp, Couse, Ufer and several other artists in the exhibition were part of Taos School, begun informally when East Coast artists visited the Southwest in the 1890s. Over three decades, it became a thriving year-round artists' colony in Taos, New Mexico. Most had studied in European academies; all had mastered the use of strong color, bright light, and bold compositions. They portrayed not only Indian subjects but also dramatic landscapes and age-old Hispanic cultures of the Southwest, an antidote to urban industry and the sophistication of eastern cities in the Gilded Age.

One Taos artist, William Victor Higgins, spoke of New Mexico's "primitive appeal" and said the very air of Taos country "drives caution from man's brain." His "Mountain Forms #2" (about 1925-27) presents a religious procession moving through a monumental landscape that presses against a cosmic sky. Ernest Martin Hennings, in "Riders at Sunset" (1935-45), places two robed figures on horseback within what he considered his true subjects--"sage, mountain, and sky."

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has maintained a focus on the West by collecting artworks about the western landscape tradition and Indian and Hispanic peoples, as well as organizing landmark exhibitions and publishing new research about these essential aspects of this cultural heritage. Many key gifts to the collection over several decades reflect the donors' recognition of these significant programs.

To accompany the exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum published a lavishly illustrated gift book, Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of BPI Communications, released in June 2000. The book features 63 color illustrations and brief discussions of the individual art treasures in the exhibition.

Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, touring the nation through 2002. The Principal Financial Group® is a proud partner in presenting these treasures to the American people. Presentation in Akron is made possible by generous gifts from The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, The Mary S. and David C. Corbin Foundation and an anonymous donor. Enthusiastic contributors to the museum's 2000 Annual Appeal have provided additional support. More information and full itineraries for Treasures to Go can be found on the Smithsonian American Art Museum web site at http://AmericanArt.si.edu.

See our earlier article on this traveling exhibition: Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (6/7/00)

Read more about the Akron Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

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