Editor's note: The following 1975 essay was published on August 23, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas Daives, New Canaan, CT. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Mr. Daives by writing to the author at 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT, 06480.
Art in America: 1825-1975
by Thomas Davies
1850 - 1900
Along with the landscapes of the Hudson River School and the genre painters, the 19th Century produced another school of art, or subject matter, still life. Still life pictures, as well as still life painters, were fewer in number than the more popular landscape and genre works. The center of still life work was Philadelphia and the period in which it flourished was the second half of the 19th Century. Despite the objective of Romanticism, "truth in nature", and the rise of the common man as subject matter, still life subjects of flowers and fruit were perhaps just too common to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, the American desire for reality was strong enough to produce a demand for still life subject and they became an integral part of the 19th Century tradition of American work.
The Land, the Indian and the Cowboy
1850 - 1930
There is probably nothing more American in American art than paintings of the West -- of the Rockies, and the plains country, of Indians and frontiersmen, mountain men, and cowboys. Although these paintings are landscapes and genre pictures of a sort -- they are still unique, and different from those previously seen. They are different in subject matter, but perhaps more importantly they are different in mood or spirit. There is no doubt that the West -- both in fact and in myth -- had a deeply profound influence on American life. It is hard to grasp the effect that the opening of the West had upon the people of the Eastern sea coast. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the additions of Texas and the Southwest prior to the mid-19th Century, the Northwest boundary settlements and the acquisition of. California, more than 1,850,000 square miles of untapped, untamed wilderness were added to the United States. The earliest trips to this new land by artists were generally in association with government expeditions and surveys. The first artists ventured West across the Missouri River as early as 1830 and depicted the Indian in his natural environment.
Soon the reality and the myth of the West -- often called the "frontier experience" -- became a tremendously popular subject matter for paintings. To many, the concept of the frontier was more than wilderness country, it was called by one prominent historian of the day "the meeting point between savagery and civilization". The development of Western art fits squarely into the Romanticism that prompted the earlier landscape and genre work, and carried further the country's growing demand for a national art form. The westward trek of the pioneer family seeking to build a new life in virgin wilderness was an extraordinary fact attesting to the nobility of the human spirit. What better subject matter could there be for a Romantic realist to portray.
Consider the Pony Express, young men who rode like the wind carrying the mail across open and hostile country. The Pony Express started with a simple advertisement which read "Wanted young skinny, wiry fellows, not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25.00 per week." By mid-century the country was caught up in the spirit of westward expansion. Legends were being built, the early Indian scout Daniel Boone was frequently portrayed in paintings of the day as he guided the settlers through the Cumberland Gap westward to Kentucky. Names like General Custer, Fremont and his guide Kit Carson opening the Oregon trail gave America instant heroes, who were partially myth but historically real. In the latter half of the 19th Century, stories and paintings depicting the feats of heroes and the opportunities for the common man were widely available in the East. Stories or "dime novels", and prints of Western paintings were the things that dreams were made of for adults and children alike. There was more land available than imagination could comprehend -- it was there for the taking if you had the courage. There was the gold rush and wealth beyond one's dreams, the buffalo hunter, the Indian fighter. It was all there. However, for those who couldn't "go West" the West came East with men like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock, who brought extravagant shows of Indians and Cowboys to play Eastern theatres.
The appeal of the West is just as real today as it was then, in art as well as other media of communications, and it is still the stuff of fact and fiction, reality and myth.
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