Face to Face: Portraits and the American West

January 22, 2011 - Early May, 2011



 

Wall text labels for the exhibition

 

George Catlin

Mandan Indians, 1871, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 18x24 _ inches. Gift of the Rockwell Foundation. 78.23.

Catlin lost his entire original Indian Gallery in 1852 while on tour in London with a troupe of Ojibwa Indians. He had toured his collection extensively in the United States and Europe in an attempt to find a patron who would purchase the paintings and artifacts and gift them to the U.S. government. In its later stages, the exhibition of his work also included performances by Native Americans, foreshadowing the later development of Wild West shows. While in London in 1852 and facing imminent bankruptcy, Catlin's collection was seized to pay his debts. It became the property of a Pennsylvania industrialist and sat in a warehouse in Pittsburg for many years. To compensate for this loss, Catlin set about the laborious task of recreating his gallery utilizing his field sketches, notes, and his memory. He called these new works cartoons and he often, as is in this case, painted a fauve frame around them. Eventually, he would replicate the entire 300 painting gallery, but many of his new paintings were reworkings, not exact copies of his earlier work. Mandan Indians is a classic example of the latter; the figures were pulled from other compositions. The second figure from the left was first painted in 1835 at Prairie du Chien and entitled "Man Who Puts All Out of Doors," and was originally identified by Catlin as a Winnebago. Modern scholars have said that the figure more closely resembles a member of the Sioux or Objibwa tribes. Mandan Indians was painted in 1871, a year before Catlin died and while the artist identified the subjects as Mandan, it is more likely that each is from a different tribe.

 

Alfred Jacob Miller

Crow Chief on the Lookout, oil on canvas, 11 _ x9 _ inches. Clara S. Peck bequest. 83.46.11

Alfred Jacob Miller made his only trip west in 1857, when he accompanied his patron William Drummond Stewart to the Wind River Mountains in present day Wyoming, to observe one of the last great mountain man rendezvous, an annual gathering of trappers and Indians to trade and celebrate the previous season's trappings. Miller was classically trained in Europe and had established a portrait studio in New Orleans where Steward met him and retained him to document his last trip to the West. Stewart had wandered around the world and had traveled extensively in the American West. After this trip, he would retire to his ancestral home in Scotland. Miller became the only artist to paint a rendezvous on site. He made several watercolor and pencil sketches and used those as a basis for his finished oils. Working in a highly romantic style, Miller provided a glimpse into a rapidly vanishing period in western history. His trip fueled his artistic endeavors for the rest of his life. After completing several large oils for Stewart in Scotland at Murthly Castle, Miller returned to his birthplace, Baltimore and established a successful studio. He was frequently commissioned for oils and watercolors based on his trip with Stewart. Many of these differed from his original sketches in at least one significant way. In the sketches, Stewart and his white Arabian stallion are frequently the center of attention. In his later paintings, such as this one, Miller replaced Stewart with a Native American. The sketch for this painting and many others like it clearly shows Stewart astride his Arabian mount.

 

Joseph Henry Sharp

Portrait of Chief White Grass, 1902, oil on canvas, 18 x 12 _ inches. Anonymous Loan.

Prior to being one of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, Joseph Henry Sharp established a small studio at the Crow Agency in Montana. He set about the task there of documenting as many tribal leaders as he could and was careful to portray each in their everyday dress. Although posed, these portraits are not staged in terms of costumes of other artifacts. Later in Taos, Sharp would frequently use props he collected while in Montana to create an ambience for his portraits of Pueblo Indians. This particular painting was one of Sharp's favorites and he kept it for several years hidden away from his most ardent collectors. By the time he gave it to a close friend, who had also been his physician, his work was widely collected by both individuals and institutions. In writing to his friend, he said, "Can't send you any heads now. I have a Crow hid away for you. I don't show those ever. I have 2 Crows for myself and museums or money can't get them now." "Heads" was Sharp's term for portraits of this nature. He also gave his friend several items from his extensive artifact collection over the years in gratitude for his medical service to both he and his wife.

This painting has remained with the family of the original owner.

 

Rosalie Favell

Navigating by Our Grandmothers, from Plain(s) Warrior Artist, 2000, Iris/Giclee print, 30x32 _ inches,

Clara S. Peck Fund Purchase. 2000.24

Like many Native American artists, Rosalie Favell, uses the process of creating art as a passage to both self and cultural discovery. Her work often incorporates photographs from family albums and juxtaposes them against symbols and images that relate to her Metis heritage. The result is a highly personal portrait of herself and family and exploration into her connection to society. Pictured here are Favell and her sister on horseback balanced between photos of her two grandmothers who reflect both her Metis and Anglo heritage. Favell has described her artistic career as a quest, saying, "My quest to find my place in the world has taken me many places physically, intellectually, and spiritually. My work comes from a culmination of searching for a way to comment on the worlds that I live in, investigating issues of personal and cultural identities. The images in Plain(s) Warrior Artist depict my struggle to find place in the world and provide sources to explore my questions of cultural constructs."

 

Rick Bartow

Dog, Deer, and Me, 1996, pastel, charcoal graphite on paper, 40x26 inches. Clara S. Peck Fund purchase, 2000.25.2

Upon viewing Rick Bartow's work, one critic said that the artist is "a man who lives in a world that is modern and ancient at the same time." That is an apt description of his art which calls upon ancient native traditions and symbols, many from the animal world and melds those symbols with self portraits and the accoutrements of the modern world. His work, such as Dog, Deer, and Me is often a blending of his own image with that of dogs, bears, hawks, coyotes, or other animals that have deep symbolic meaning for many Native cultures. Often those figures are seen in transformation, either melding into a single figure or splitting into several, as if the artist is emphasizing the different states of consciousness that can reside in a single entity. His work flows from his personal and tribal (Yurok) background and may take forms that he is unaware of when he first begins the process. As he said, "Mostly what I do is draw and draw and draw. I begin, I listen, and I look and maybe a shadow happens. I don't know what it is, but it doesn't start in the studio. It starts with books and other images, people, it starts back in here someplace, and it goes back to my family, back to somebody else."

For Bartow, the actual act of creating art taps into his unconscious and calls forth images from his childhood and stories that have been told to him by family members. His self portraits are expressions of how he sees himself and how he perceives the influences that have shaped his character.

 

Frederic Remington

Arizona Cowboy 1901, pastel and graphite on paper, 30x24 inches. Gift of the Rockwell Foundation, 78.45.

Remington's iconic portrait of a cowboy astride his horse decked out with the tools of his trade is the quintessential image of the working cowboy of the nineteenth century. He sits ramrod straight, tall in the saddle, his face weathered by long days and nights on the range. Prone to painting universal types, Remington created a series of eight pastels in 1901 as part of his annual exhibition and sale at Knoedler's Gallery in New York. Each pastel depicted a different western "type," from the cowboy to the trooper. The series gained wide popularity when Remington and R. H. Russell published a portfolio of eight prints based on the pastels. The portfolio was accompanied by an introduction by famed writer and long time Remington friend, Owen Wister, who had penned the first great western novel, The Virginian, for which Remington supplied the illustrations. Original editions of the portfolio are still highly valued by collectors today, affirming that Remington had few peers in his ability to capture the essence of the characters that populated his West.

 

Kurt Markus

Bert Ancell, Bell Ranch, New Mexico, 1983, gelatin silver print photograph on paper, 20x16 inches. 87.46.

Many of the first artists that sought to create a comprehensive portrait of Native American life did so out of their fervent belief that they were documenting a vanishing race. They were certain that the way of life they depicted would disappear with no visual record of its existence except what they could produce. Ironically, the image of the Native American never disappeared and has been constantly in artistic vogue for the last century and a half, yet images of the working cowboy diminished greatly by the middle of the twentieth century. Television and movies took the place of paintings and photographs and the cowboy, when he was pictured tended to be of the drugstore variety. In the mid 1960s' that began to change with the formation of the Cowboy Artists of America, a group of artists who wanted to keep alive the tradition of portraying ordinary cowboys in the manner of Remington and Russell. Along the same time a new generation of photographers also began focusing on the cowboys who were still working cattle in much the same manner that their fathers and grandfathers had. Often those photographic studies were published under titles like, "The Last Cowboy," or the "The Last of the Breed." Like the Indian warriors of the nineteenth century, the cowboy was seen as a dying breed.

Photographers like, Kurt Markus, emerged to show that the cowboy was still alive and well and working ranches big and small all over the West. One of Markus' first major collections of cowboy photographs appeared in a book entitled, "After Barbed Wire," which was a homage to the work of pioneering western photographer, Irwin Smith, whose work had been chronicled in a book titled, "Before Barbed Wire." Like Smith before him, Markus was not interested in adding to the myth of the cowboy, but chose to portray ordinary men like Bert Ancell, whose family had worked the Bell Ranch in New Mexico for generations. Markus's photographs are straightforward, but artistically composed to focus the viewer's eye on the portrait's subject, usually caught in the daily activities of the ranch or in quite repose as shown here.

 

Donna Howell-Sickels

Pigs In A Blanket,

Writing about the art of Donna Howell-Sickles in Wildlife Art Magazine, Judy Archibald had this to say about the artist, "the cowgirls in Donna Howell Sickles paintings dance through life in joyous abandonment, exploding off the canvas in spontaneous action and vibrant colors. These Red Horse Riders flirt with cowboys, tame bulls, and run with horses. They are self-confident, saucy women who live life to the fullest." That sort of response is not an uncommon reaction to Howell-Sickles depictions of western women. Cowgirls have been at the center of her work since her student days at Texas Tech University. While there she ran across a vintage hand colored photograph from the 1930's of rodeo cowgirls. She soon began incorporating cowgirls into her art and they now form the center of her work. She skillfully melds the cowgirl theme with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology to produce colorful and vibrant images that have an infectious energy.

 

Gordon Snidow

Prophet's Bull, Gouache on paper, 32x39 inches. Lent by Grace and Gordon Snidow.

New Mexico painter Gordon Snidow joined the Cowboy Artists of America (CAA) shortly after the group was formed in the mid 1960s. Like the other original members, he had been heavily influenced as a young artist by the works of Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, which he had seen in abundance in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. He was a frequent visitor to that museum and gained a thorough grounding in the art of the West through studying the wide array of western art found there. Unlike other members of the CAA, Snidow has always chosen to focus on the West of today. A keen student of historic western art, Snidow has seen his role as depicting the modern West, in all its facets. He is as adept at portraying hard working cowboys as he is at depicting the lost souls who wander the West in search of their next meal. An exhibition of his work is likely to contain scenes of ranch hands rounding up cattle alongside graffiti covered walls of abandoned buildings in remote Southwestern towns. He presents many faces of the West, trail hardened cowhands, cowgirls who work just as hard and just as well as their male counterparts, and itinerant drifters, like the man shown in Prophet's Bull. All are part of the modern West and all have caught Snidow's eye. He paints each with skill and sensitivity and finds one image to be just as important a component of today's West as the other.

 

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