Proud Legacy: 150 Years of Western Art

By May, Stephen | Southwest Art, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Proud Legacy: 150 Years of Western Art

May, Stephen, Southwest Art

19th-Century Artists Depict the Unknown West

This article is the first in a year-long series chronicling the development of the western American art movement. Next month, Stephen May focuses on the period 1900-10.

Few movements in human history have captured the popular imagination more than the taming of the American West. From the time of our nation's beginnings, the region west of the Mississippi has been viewed as a land of mystery and promise, a place to project dreams and ambitions, a symbol of the unknown and the future. The same zeal for land, freedom, and opportunity that incited Europeans to settle the East Coast impelled their descendants to push westward into uncharted areas-and stimulated artists to add impetus to that movement in the 19th century.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 more than doubled the size of the United States and gave rise to the idea of Manifest Destiny, artist-explorers were inevitably drawn to the grand drama and tremendous panorama of the western frontier. With its boundless prairies, vast forests, enormous mountains, mighty rivers, and exotic Indian population, the West was a magnificent stage that challenged the best of the young nation's artistic talent.

Able and daring artists responded at first with careful renderings of the flora, fauna, terrain, and Native Americans of this unknown region. They were followed by increasingly skilled painters whose robust depictions of natural wonders and courageous settlers taming an immense continent helped shape America's sense of itself. Westward expansion, encouraged by our painters and sculptors, became a l9th-century article of faith, molding our democratic values of rugged individualism, self-reliance, ingenuity, and optimism about the future. By the time historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared more than a century ago that our frontier days had ended when we reached the Pacific, the West was fully ingrained in the national spirit and psyche.

In recent years, revisionist historians have challenged those timehonored beliefs, pointing to the conflict, despoliation, and Indian displacement that accompanied westward expansion. Few have contested, however, the significance of the artwork that emerged from that central chapter in America's history.

Among the earliest white men who ventured beyond the frontier in the early l9th century were artists accompanying government survey expeditions. Two of the first trained artists to go West were Titian Ramsay Peale [1799-1885], youngest son of painter/museum pioneer Charles Willson Peale, and English-born Samuel Seymour [1796-1823], both of whom were part of Major Stephen H. Long's topographical expedition up the Missouri River and to the Rocky Mountains in 1819-21. Traveling thousands of miles in the company of soldiers and scientists, they recorded the indigenous people and scenic wonders of the Westincluding the first images of the Rocky Mountains, such as Seymour's engraving VIEW OF THE RocK MOUNTAINS.

Pursuing an even more ambitious mission, in 1837 artistnaturalist John James Audubon [1785-1851] visited Texas to document birds and animals. During visits to Galveston Island and Houston he observed and recorded such birds as the turkey vulture, white pelican, and whooping crane and animals like the American bison or buffalo, red Texas wolf, and Texas lynx.

The first extensive portrayals of Native Americans were executed in the 1820s by Charles Bird King [1785-1862]-not in the West but in Washington, DC. A New England native who trained in London, King was commissioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to make likenesses of Native Americans who were visiting the nation's capitol to negotiate treaties.

Between 1821 and 1840 King produced nearly 150 portraits of Indians from 20 tribes, which formed the nucleus of the National Indian Portrait Gallery that was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865. Among the surviving oil paintings iS PEAHMUSKA (THE FOX CHIEF WENDING HIS COURSE). …

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