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The Artist and the American West: The Great Basin


Held June 15 - October 6, 2002, the exhibition from the Amon Carter Museum's permanent collection The Artist and the American West: The Great Basin, chronicled the visual history of the Great Basin, a high desert region of some 220,000 square miles that includes portions of California, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada and Utah. The name was first used by the explorer John C. Fremont in 1843-44. The exhibition featured a number of notable images, from the earliest views by explorer artists to provocative and stunning prints by contemporary photographers.


Following is wall panel text from the exhibition The Artist and the American West: The Great Basin:


The Great Basin includes almost all of Nevada, half of Utah west of the Wasatch Mountains, parts of southern Oregon and Idaho, the southwestern corner of Wyoming, the eastern side of the Sierras, and the Mohave of southern California into the Baja. Geographically it is a large area of approximately 220,000 square miles, running roughly 900 miles north to south, and 570 miles east to west. The region has often been termed "the desert that drains into itself," and its chief characteristic is that its waters have no outlet to the sea. The major rivers of the Great Basin flow inward, and many of them disappear into the desert. The Humboldt River peters out into a marshy sink, water from the Sierras drains into a series of salty lakes, and most of the water flowing from the south dissipates into the arid landscape. The names of other major rivers connote the challenges of the desert environment: the Malheur in Oregon, the Sevier (severe) in Utah, where the American artist Richard Kern lost his life to an Indian attack. Not surprisingly, this was the last major area of the American West to be carefully explored and surveyed.
And yet, the Great Basin has a very rich history. As the works in this exhibition demonstrate, the perilous allure and strange beauty of the desert regions have attracted skilled artists right up to the present day. The Spanish were the first white men to record their impressions of the region, and mountain men and fur traders later ranged the country in search of furs. Jim Bridger discovered the Great Salt Lake, Jedediah Smith was the first to cross the Great Basin to California, and Joseph Walker was the first to traverse and explore the southwestern portion. They, in turn, were followed by the official government exploring expeditions, beginning with one led by John C. Frémont, who is credited with being the first to accurately describe the characteristics of the region and refer to it as the Great Basin. The exploration became more intense once gold was discovered in California, and in the midst of this the Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake region to build a new world for themselves. Shortly after that more gold and a legendary mountain of silver were discovered in the Virginia Mountains of Nevada, and more people poured into the Great Basin. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad was inaugurated at Promontory Point in Utah in 1869, the Great Basin had already experienced the upheavals of rapid settlement and growth. The objects in this exhibition, all from the Carter's permanent collection, chronicle the wonder of discovery, the changes brought by white settlement, and the forbidding, yet timeless beauty of the landscape itself. As viewers will see, the more recent depictions of the Great Basin sometimes manage to combine all three of these elements in interesting new ways.


Following are label text excerpts from the exhibition The Artist and the American West: The Great Basin:


Christian Inger (active after 1857)
View of Great Salt Lake City, 1867
In the summer of 1847, a vanguard of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young laid out the city of Great Salt Lake, as it was initially called. The plan was essentially a checkerboard design, consisting of ten-acre blocks with alternating frontages -- alternate blocks had houses on the east and west sides only, while the blocks between them had houses facing north and south. Each block consisted of eight large lots, and every house had to be built away from the wide streets, near the center of its lot. The temple square was a single ten-acre block, and additional blocks were set aside for other municipal uses. This view shows the temple finished, but it actually was not at the time. The Mormons also specified that all streams and nearby timber lands were to be held in common.
Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Valley of the Babbling Waters, Southern Utah, 1876
"The scenery of southern Utah, along the Colorado River and its branches, is the most remarkable and grand of this or any other country," Hayden claimed. This view shows a side gorge with the Virgin River, which eventually empties into the Colorado. These canyons, Hayden noted, were "stupendous examples of the carving power of water." Interestingly, Hayden also observed that the region was so inaccessible that it must "ever be dedicated to nature, for it can never be inhabited by man. It is unique, grand, barren, and desolate." Of course, this was written long before the era of off-road vehicles.
Peter Moran (1841-1914)
Sulphur Springs, Salt Lake, c. 1879
Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on tan paper
In 1879 Peter's older brother, Thomas, accepted a commission from the Union Pacific Railroad to travel and sketch in the West. He set out with his brother and spent much of August in Nevada and Utah, going as far as Lake Tahoe and the Humboldt Valley. Around August 13 and 14, they were in the vicinity of Salt Lake City, exploring Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains. At the time, they complained of the dry and dusty conditions, and the presence of numerous fires that burned unchecked. This beautiful study of the lake and an area around a sulphur spring was undoubtedly done during that period.

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