Chicago and the Art of the Western Frontier. (Museums Today)

By Barter, Judith A.; Kelly, Sarah E. | USA TODAY, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Chicago and the Art of the Western Frontier. (Museums Today)


Barter, Judith A., Kelly, Sarah E., USA TODAY


FROM ITS BEGINNINGS, the growth, history, and psyche of the young American nation were unequivocally shaped by the existence of the West, a frontier to push forward in search of land and fortune. As the nation expanded, the frontier moved farther westward in an unchecked progression, suggesting the seemingly endless economic and social possibilities of the U.S. In addition, it assumed symbolic significance as an escape from the institutions, traditions, and cultural hegemony of the established East, the frontier became a place where the free-spirited could go for adventure and personal freedom. Ultimately, it seemed that the core American values--individualism, self-reliance, and a dedication to the democratic spirit--were forged in the crucible of the West.

In 1893, however, during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, presented a paper in the Hall of Congresses (today, The Art Institute of Chicago) entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner's influential thesis was undoubtedly informed by the statistics from the 1890 U.S. Census Bureau, which declared the frontier--defined as land with fewer than two inhabitants per square mile--to be closed. By this definition, there was no longer a western frontier of unsettled land. Expressed here in demographic terms, this closure had conceptual implications as well--there no longer was an unknown terrain of possibility and promise.

The 1890 census figures pointed to another crucial demographic change--a radical decline in the Native American population, from 340,000 in 1860 to less than 250,000 three decades later Along with wories about the loss of the frontier and the dilution of the American character, there arose a fear that Indians risked extinction. Turner's paper piqued interest in these vanishing aspects of the nation's culture, promoting a rush to preserve the past, while reframing it in modern terms.

Following the World's Columbian Exposition, a "new" frontier emerged in art and literature, driven by Chicago's strong ties to the West. This new frontier became defined through expressive reinterpretations of western life, landscape, and history. Even as the actual experience of the frontier receded, artists, ethnographers, writers, patrons, and institutions explored, documented, and preserved different Wests--of archaeological fact and ethnographic record; of myth and imagination; and of spirituality and universal presence. From 1890 to 1940, successive generations of Chicago artists and patrons found aesthetic and often spiritual sustenance in the West, with their visions taking many forms. The artists tended to eschew narrative, anecdotal interpretations of western history and culture, focusing instead on the contemporary West in an empathetic and decidedly modern way. Chicago, the geographic and mercantile gateway to the American West, became the hub of a redefined frontier--a window on the West.

During the 1890s, hoping to find a truly American subject matter, many Chicago artists were inspired by the displays of southwestern art and artifacts at the World's Columbian Exposition. Within the Beaux-Arts buildings, grandiose scientific halls showcased the new fields of physical anthropology and ethnology, recording the vanishing Indian cultures. Sculptures of Native Americans by such artists as Cyrus Dallin and Alexander P. Proctor decorated the fairgrounds of the White City, while the Midway Plaisance featured the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody and Indian families from a variety of tribes. Unlike most eastern artists, though, Chicago artists wanted to observe native culture firsthand. For example, sculptors Edward Kemeys and Hermon Atkins MacNeil traveled west in search of authenticity. Kemeys studied Indian cultures and western animals, while MacNeil witnessed the Hopi Snake Dance, a biannual event rarely seen by white men. …

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