Face to Face: Portraits and the American West

January 22, 2011 - Early May, 2011


Wall text panels for the exhibition


Creating a Lasting Image: Native Americans and Early Western Artists

Images of Native Americans always have been an integral part of the Art of the American West. In fact one could say that Western Art began with portraits of Indian delegations that traveled from their homelands to Washington D.C. to negotiate treaties with the federal government. It was a chance encounter with one of those delegations that changed the course of one artist's life and set the tone for depictions of American Indians for many years. George Catlin was primarily self-taught as an artist. He had established a portrait business in Philadelphia shortly after abandoning his career as an attorney, but had achieved only a modest amount of success, when he happened upon an Indian delegation in Philadelphia that had been visiting major Eastern cities on its way to Washington, D.C. Catlin quickly conceived a grand plan that would occupy the remainder of his life. His goal was to create a comprehensive portrait of North American Indian life by traveling extensively through the West to document in his paintings as many tribes as possible. He first traveled up the Missouri River in 1832 into territory that most Americans did not know well.

Over the course of the next four decades in a career that was marked by financial turmoil, Catlin produced more than 600 paintings of American Indians and countless drawings and sketches. His work was widely reproduced in print form and his image of the American Indian, along with that of other early western artists, such as Karl Bodmer, who followed Catlin beyond the frontier in 1832-33, and Alfred Jacob Miller who traveled to the Rocky Mountains in 1837, quickly became embedded in the American imagination. These early artists of the West all traveled to the territories of the Northern Plains Indians and the images they brought back to an eager Eastern audience were of buckskin clad warriors racing across the plains in pursuit of bison. Often adorned with feather headdresses and intricate bead and quill work, the image of the American Indian on his horse, or in his lodge, became synonymous with the entirety of Native culture for many Americans. Other artists embarked on similar journeys largely following in the footsteps of Catlin, Bodmer, and Miller and repeated their concentration on Plains Indians. By the advent of western movies, these images were so firmly established that the Plains warrior became a staple of the cinema, reinforcing the idea of Native America as a single homogenous culture.

Like John Mix Stanley and Edward Curtis after him, Catlin was convinced that the Native American life he was portraying soon would vanish in the face of increasing migrations by Anglo settlers into Indian lands. He hoped to preserve and document that culture though his Indian Gallery. Ironically, his work helped to create a stereotype of Native culture that would last far into the twentieth century. Almost all of Catlin's work was based on first-hand observations; he, in fact, was the first artist to paint Native Americans in their home environment in the West. While his paintings are historically accurate, if not always artistically successful, by virtue of his focus on Plains culture, and the popularity of his images, his Indian Gallery helped to establish a notion of Native American life and culture that was only partially correct. His vision of American Indians would be the predominant image in America for well over a century.


Finding a New Image: Native Americans and Southwestern Artists

Joseph Henry Sharp played a major role in a profound change in the way that both artists and the American public perceived Native Americans. Like Henry Farny, Sharp was from Cincinnati and developed an interest in painting Native American portraits early in his career. He was trained in the academies of both the American Midwest and Europe. In the late nineteenth century, he established a studio at the Crow Agency in Montana and set about the task of painting many of the Indian leaders there and on nearby reservations. "Chief White Grass" is an excellent example of Sharp's work at the Agency. It depicts its subject as he appeared in his daily activities around the reservation. Sharp was careful in these portraits to present each subject with authentic details and in the dress they would have been wearing at the time. Although he collected many Native American artifacts and costumes, he did not utilize them in these portraits, preferring to present the people he painted just as they would have appeared to visitors at the time.

During the time that Sharp was painting in Montana, he also traveled to Northern New Mexico on an illustration assignment for a popular magazine. He was so enchanted with the environment there, the quality of the light, and the presence of three distinct cultures, the Native American, the Anglo and the Hispanic, that he decided to shift his focus to painting in that area. While studying in Europe he told two fellow artists about his experiences in and around Taos, New Mexico, and he urged them to travel there. Those two artists, Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein, followed his advice and made an extensive painting trip to the Southwest in 1898. Just north of Taos, a wheel on the wagon they were traveling in broke, forcing them to detour to the small New Mexican village. They were so captivated with what they saw there, that they decided to stay and paint, rather than traveling on to Mexico. Just as Sharp had urged them to visit the region they, in turn, began telling many of their colleagues about the charms of the area; eventually, over the course of the next few years, a small colony of artists was established. As a means of organizing traveling exhibitions and sales, a few of the artists formed the Taos Society of Artists, which included Sharp, E.I. Couse, E.Martin Hennings, Victor Higgins, Oscar Berninghaus, W.H. Dunton, Victor Higgins, Walter Ufer, Phillips, Blumenschien, and a few others.

The Native Americans that these artists found in Northern New Mexico had a very different culture than that of the Plains tribes that had been featured in the Art of the American West since Catlin's time. They were not nomadic, lived in permanent adobe structures, and were largely agrarian. Their customs, dress, and daily routines were vastly different from the images of Native Americans that were widely circulated at the time. Using models from the nearby Taos Pueblo, some artists such as E. I. Couse and, to some extent, Sharp as well, still produced images that continued the artistic traditions established by Catlin and others. Their models were from the pueblo, but they frequently posed them among Plains artifacts and in Plains costumes. However, other artists in the group were more interested in painting the Pueblo culture. Their work was widely collected in the Midwest and East and their paintings were reproduced commonly in publications. In the course of only a few years, a new and more diverse image of Native Americans began to emerge. The idea that images of Plains Indians represented all Indians began to fade as more artists came to reside in the Southwest and began to turn their attention increasingly to the native cultures they found there. Sharp himself came to focus almost entirely on painting Pueblo culture. By the end of his career, he once again was focusing on portraying the daily lives and cultural nuances of the Indians he saw on a daily basis, but these later paintings served to substantially widen the scope of Native American portraiture.

Telling Their Own Stories: Native American Artists and Native American Portraits

Until relatively recently, most art representing Native American cultures was produced from an outsider's perspective. No matter how well-intentioned or well-informed the artist may have been, his or her paintings or sculpture only could offer approximations of native culture, which is not to say that those representations have not provided valuable information. George Catlin's detailed views of the Mandan people are the only visual records of that culture, which was decimated by small pox shortly after the artist visited the region. Howard Terpning's modern paintings of Blackfeet history are based on stories told to him by present elders of the tribe and offer a visual accompaniment to those tales. Still, the vast majority of American art depicting American Indians only can scratch the surface of Native American culture.

What emerges from even a cursory examination of art about Native Americans by Native Americans is the sheer diversity and complexity of the many different and distinct cultures that make up the totality of Native America. There are over 500 recognized tribal groups in North America alone. That fact was largely obscured by much of the art produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that took American Indian subjects as its principle focus. The vast number of images that were distributed to a very wide audience through original art and reproductions tended to create a stereotypical portrait of American Indians as Indians and not members of distinct societies, such as Pomo, Hopi, Navajo, or Lakota. Much of that art presents the face of Native America as a sort of universal image that serves as a metaphor for all indigenous people on the continent.

In contrast, much of Native American art springs from very personal points of view. While the works of such artists as Juane Quick-to-see-Smith, Rick Bartow, and David Bradley are very much reflective of their cultural traditions and often depend on those traditions, they also are reflective of the artists' own particular histories and experiences. The images these artists present often are drawn from their unique perspectives, which then are connected to the traditions and history of individual tribal cultures. Many Native American artists have found that the best way to express their artistic and cultural vision is through self-portraiture. These artists present themselves in different situations and guises and often steep their portrayals of their individual histories with centuries old traditions and beliefs.

Art about Native Americans presents an over view of how the dominant culture has seen Indians and Indian life at specific periods in American history. Early artists tended to show American Indians as natural extensions of the land itself, at one with and in harmony with their surroundings; later as more and more Anglo settlers came into contact with Native Americans who were not eager to cede over their lands to these newcomers, the image of the Indian was largely that of war-like adversaries. After the final Indian wars of the nineteenth century were over, a different image of Native Americans was then increasingly presented -- that of the vanquished, but noble, Savage, perhaps best epitomized by James Earl Fraser's "End of the Trail," which shows a lone Plains warrior slumped on his horse, with head down and spear pointing toward the ground.

It is a powerful image and it can invoke a variety of deep emotions, but it has little connection to the art being produced today by a new generation of Native American artists. That art has a strong connection to tribal traditions, but it is equally grounded in individualism. These self portraits and personal histories do give an insight into larger cultural histories, but they most often give an even greater insight into the personality of the artist.


The American Cowboy: Legend and Fact

Shortly after the Civil War, when the great herds of Texas longhorn cattle were beginning to be pushed up dusty trails to railheads in Kansas and the open range of Montana, the itinerant laborers who drove the cattle hardly had pristine reputations. In the towns and villages that dotted the prairies over which the cattle were driven, "cowboys" were largely seen as ruffians and trouble makers. Most owned little more than a saddle and the clothes they wore. Their employers even provided their horses. When the drive finally reached Abilene or Dodge City, most of the cowhands could show very little in terms of monetary gain. The life was hard, dangerous and, all too often, quite short. Those who lived it did not see their lot as heroic or romantic.

However, artists and writers did and, often working in concert for the leading illustrated publications of the day, they produced stories and images that transformed ordinary cowhands into stalwart and courageous heroes of the Wild West. Very early images of herders, often on foot, moving cattle along coastal trails with the aid of whips and long sticks, soon gave way to depictions of cowboys as mounted and armed knights of the range. The cowboys in these paintings and stories were hard working, talented with both lasso and pistol, and not prone to a lot of useless prattle. They spoke few words, but when they did, one would be wise to listen.

Two early illustrators sent into the West by Harper's Weekly Magazine, Paul Frenzeny and Jules Travernier, described the cowboys they met in Texas as "generous, warm-hearted, brave, and fond of adventure. A stranger entering their camp might mistake them for lawless and dangerous characters, but they must not be judged by their rough appearance." The two went on to say that these men were "indefatigable and excellent riders.....well armed and skillful in the use of the rifle and pistol, they are more dreaded by the Indians than all the U.S. soldiers ever sent into the state."

Romanticized as it is, there is an element of truth in the cowboy portraits of such artists as Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and Frank Tenney Johnson. Their depictions were often based on first- hand observation and experience. Russell, in particular, drew upon his personal experience working in Montana cow camps for his artistic inspiration. While Remington tended to paint and sculpt archetypical figures, Russell filled his canvases with people he had known and worked with. Together Remington and Russell form the two polls of Western Art, with Remington fulfilling the role of the artistically trained observer, and Russell that of self taught chronicler of the West he lived in. Hundreds of other artists, both historic and contemporary have continued to mine the deep vein of imagery that cowboy life affords. Like the images of Native Americans often depicted by the same artists, these pictures of hard riding cowboys on the open range hardly tell the whole story of this segment of western history, but they do serve to offer yet another facet of the myth and reality of the American West.

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