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Window on the West: Views from the American Frontier

January 17-April 18

Arthur J. Phelan's 1950s visits to the West introduced the Maryland native to landscapes he had only read about. Later, while he was a military historian at March Air Force Base near Riverside, California, this feeling for the West was reinforced. In 1967, he made his first purchase of Western American art. This passion has continued to the present day.

A graduate of Yale University where he studied American history, Phelan was the Chairman of Government Services Savings and Loan. He is currently the chairman of an oil tanker company headquartered in New Orleans.

Pieces from the Phelan Collection were first exhibited in 1979. Since then, the collection has been exhibited at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, the Frederic Remington Art Museum, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, DC and the Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Art Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis. Highlights from the collection have been shown in exhibitions at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Several of Phelan's paintings were included in two recent exhibitions organized by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions -- The American West: Out of Myth Into Reality and Remington, Russell and the Language of Western Art.

It's not just the West that you've seen in movies and not the stuff of legends -- the new exhibit at the Phippen shows the West as a land of surprise, quick settlement and authentic grandeur, as seen by the artists who personally explored the West and visually documented what they saw.

Sixty paintings from the private collection of Arthur J. Phelan of Chevy Chase, Maryland were selected to give an historically accurate cross-section of what really happened in the expansion of the West. They depict the people who moved west from the Mississippi, the land they passed through and chose for their new homes, and the settlements they created. They examine how the West was gradually transformed over the decades as the continent filled and frontier receded and then disappeared.

Included in this exhibit are works of the greats -- Frederic Remington, Carl Wimar, Alfred Jacob Miller, Karl Bodmer and Josef Bakos, as well as Lone Wolf, who was perhaps the first academically trained Native American artist. But what makes this exhibit truly unique is that it emphasizes the views of lesser-known men and women artists who personally recorded what they observed in this raw new country.

"What I've looked for in the pictures is some kind of message about the past," says Arthur J. Phelan, talking about an interest which grew from his graduate studies in American history at Yale. "I use art as a way to visualize the past. It becomes my personal time machine. Let's not take John Wayne's West as the only West. There are many Wests." (right: Ransom G. Holdredge, Sioux Camp in the Rocky Mountains)

Rather than looking for European roots in the subject and technique of the paintings he has collected, Phelan has been more interested in the artist's documentation of how the landscape, settlements and people of the West actually appeared to the artists capturing these subjects on canvas. His collection is our Window on the West -- a balanced, historical view from the artists themselves.

According to Ann Townsend, president of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, "This is a show that museum visitors will love. The glorious West -- its landscapes, settlements and people -- is documented in a way photographs can approach." She says that visitors to Phelan's collection are commonly left with a feeling of freshness and surprise in seeing an American West that may be both more and less than they anticipated. It will be interesting to see visitors' reactions in this first true Western venue for the exhibit.

Window on the West has traveled around the United States since February, 2002, premiering at the Nassau County Museum of Art in New York. From there, it traveled to the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecitcut, The Price Tower Arts Center in Barlesville, Oklahoma, the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the Ciollege of William and Mary, the Center for the Arts in Vero Beach, Florida and the Fenimore Art Museum in New York.


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