The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick

 



 

Go West, Young Artists

 

Because many of the artists actually explored the frontier reaches to collect imagery for their work, some have been considered adventurers, almost heroes, in their own right. The sense of quest often set these painters and sculptors apart from others. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt viewed themselves as participants in the frontier experience as well as observers and recorders of it. Some were true explorers, others mere cowboys, and still others Indian advocates and ethnologists. Some were trained as topographers, while others wore soldiers' uniforms. Their experiences found empathetic reflection in their artistic expression. And because no two experiences were the same, no two reflections mirrored a common form. Each interpretation was unique.

The Colorado Territory in 1866 exemplifies this point. That summer at least six artists ventured into the West via stagecoach, each traveling nearly a thousand miles from the railheads in Kansas to Denver and the Rocky Mountains beyond. The conclusion of the Civil War opened a flood of immigration to the West, and artists were among the first wave of enthusiasts who ventured into the unexplored and unexploited domain to test its potential against their particular talent.

Theodore Davis rode the train and then a Butterfield coach to Denver and back in search of imagery for Harper's Weekly. He portrayed scenes he had witnessed or participated in -- a buffalo shoot from a train, an Indian attack on a stagecoach, mining camps, and prairie storms -- to a public readership across the nation. William Holbrook Beard, although not an artist correspondent, was no less adventuresome. Famed as an animal painter and landscapist, he went west with a travel writer, Bayard Taylor. His mountain landscapes were purported to be fully representative of the grand and exquisite mountain scenery that Colorado featured, while his views of the prairies were equally well received, sometimes evocative of the quiet balances in nature and at other times mindful of the dangers that might be encountered.

James Gookins and Henry Elkins, both of Chicago, spent their summer in the Colorado mountains in search of sublime scenery that might translate into large and, they hoped, sensational works. Thomas Worthington Whittredge, on the other hand, focused on the poetic tones of light and gentle horizontals of the prairies that he enjoyed on his trip west to Denver and Santa Fe. When he painted the front range of the Rockies, he concentrated not on their verticality and awesome splendor but on the peaceful waters that flowed from their source streams and the lacy cottonwoods that graced the rivers' banks.

 

Painting the Western Myth

 

This variety in artistic interpretation of the frontier epoch and of the broad reaches of the western domain have given the study of western art a special vibrancy and appeal. But what has garnered the most attention is neither the artists' intriguing adventures nor the variety of their aesthetic interpretations but their renditions of the western myth, inviting scholars and other observers to opine on the credibility, relevance, and stature of their expressions. The sheer power of that myth and its furtherance through the aesthetic medium have proven that while art most often imitates life, life also has a tendency to copy art when that art is sufficiently enshrouded in myth.

One myth of the West, predicated on a fundamental American presumption, is that progress is a positive force. Most western artists were celebrants of the progress myth, manifest in such diverse works as Fanny F. Palmer's Across the Continent. Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (figure 50), Henry Farny's Crossing the Continent -- The First Train (figure 45), William Ranney's Kit Carson (figure 52), and Irving R. Bacon's portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Conquest of the Prairie (figure 49). In the last work, Buffalo Bill represents the harbinger of civilization, bringing progress west in Conestoga wagons followed by, in due course, railroads, bridges, and cities.

The western myth comprises, in addition, two other fundamental elements. One, suspended from the fringes of the progress myth, is that the West was equivalent to the biblical Garden of Eden. Those western prairies and mountain ranges represented an unspoiled wilderness that afforded an open gateway to wealth, potential exploration, political freedom, and even upward social mobility. Among the many art works that reflected this popular persuasion or elements of it are Bierstadt's Wind River Country (figure 20), Paul Kane's Buffalo at Sunset (figure 9), and John Mix Stanley's Chain of Spires along the Gila River (figure 1). Bierstadt's Oregon Trail (figure 47) and Thomas Otter's On the Road (figure 14) suggest more than the richness and accessibility of a vast promised land; essentially historical allegories, these two paintings strongly imply a divine sanction as well as a technological foundation for the notion of Manifest Destiny so interwoven into the European American cultural fabric of the nineteenth century. In paintings such as Charles Deas's A Solitary Indian, Seated on the Edge of a Bold Precipice (figure 53), the artist portrays an Indian warrior sitting on a rocky promontory beside a rushing mountain torrent. The sweeping verdant plain in the distance suggests the West's plenitude of natural resources, while the painting's stormy tone and mood, along with such details as the warrior's apparent loss of one moccasin, hint at the impending demise of Indian lifeways. With the Indian out of the picture, the natural resources with which the West abounded would presumably be available for exploitation by the new arrivals to the region: the Anglo-American trappers, farmers, and miners.

A third dimension of the western myth pervading nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century art forms was the West as a masculine domain and the equating of that masculinity with lawlessness, violence, savagery, and the abandonment of social restraint. Such themes were popular in works by Alfred Jacob Miller and Charles Deas, with their treatments of the fur traders and mountain men in the 1830s, and persisted through the century into the paintings and sculpture of Frederic Remington, N. C. Wyeth, and others. A perfect example is Remington's bronze statuette The Broncho Buster (figure 37), in which a male rider conquers a mustang, the metaphorical exemplar of nature's wildness. Through his courage and skill, the rider proves his mettle over the forces of nature and, because he accomplishes his task alone, shows that he requires no assistance from civilization.

These three mythic themes -- progress, Eden, and masculinity -- were allied with a rich store of iconography and pictorial rhetoric that have formed the core elements of what became popularly denominated as western art. Through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, this art evolved through four phases: (1) the art of exploration; (2) the frontier experience; (3) landscape grandeur and national identity; and (4) the demise of native cultures and indigenous animals -- each of which lasted for roughly a generation.


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