The American Spirit Lives as Western Art Thrives: America Is Celebrating the Bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's Epic Journey with Events and Exhibits over the Next Two Years. Art Dealers Say That the Marketplace for Western Art Has Never Been Stronger

Article excerpt

America has long had a love affair With myth and legend. Two hundred years ago, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned a military expedition to seek the fabled Northwest Passage, a supposed waterway course linking the Great Lakes and the Mississippi headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. In the spring of 1804, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery cast off from St. Louis in a 55-foot keelboat and two smaller pirogues, to find that transcontinental path through the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific Coast.

The 33 men of the expedition--joined along the way by fur trader Toussaint Char bonneau and his young Native American bride, Sacagewea--battled upstream on the mighty Missouri River, encamped for the entire winter of 1804-1805 in what is now Mandan, N.D., and portaged over mountain range after mountain range until they reached Oregon in 1805. They never discovered the fabled Northwest Passage, but they encountered wondrous new lands and peoples, flora and fauna. Lewis and Clark's journey has long captured the nation's and its artists' imaginations, while the romantic idea of the American West took on mythical proportions.

In many ways, Western art, from its beginnings in the 1830s through today, tells the story of America, starting with the Corps of Discovery--official name of the Lewis and Clark Expedition--and the native cultures and vast open landscapes they encountered. The genre epitomizes the American pioneer spirit, independence, and the country's unique history.

As Walter Kirn wrote in Time magazine, "What Lewis and Clark and their party finally found-although they didn't know it at the time--was not a path between the oceans but a story whose power to challenge and absorb would bridge the more profound gap between their day and ours, between that age of new possibilities glimpsed and this one of unforeseen upheavals survived."

Although the Lewis and Clark Expedition itself did not include artists (unlike later surveys), the West and the expedition itself have been memorialized in Western genre art from almost then until now, in works by artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, George Caleb Bingham, Charles M. Russell, Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, and Edgar S. Paxson. Today's contemporary, historical and Western artists, too, are exploring the landscapes and indigenous peoples and wildlife encountered by the Corps of Discovery.

Indeed, a new book, "Art of the Lewis & Clark Trail," by Jeff Evenson (Whisper'n Water, 2003), includes both classic paintings as well as works by modern era artists of the West such as Michael Haynes, Robert Batemen, Ron Ukrainetz, Gary Lucy, Charles Fritz and John Clymer. In reading the journals kept by Lewis, Clark and other expedition members, Evenson was struck by their descriptions of a land not yet developed.

"Lewis, when he stood at the Great Falls of the Missouri, wrote that he wished he had brought an artist along," notes Evenson, who included Fritz' painting, "Captain Lewis Arriving at the Great Falls of the Missouri-June 13, 1805."

Nationwide Interest

There are a number of related major art exhibitions on view now or coming soon, including the Smithsonian Institution's traveling "George Catlin and His Indian Gallery," slated to be shown in Houston, from Oct. 10, 2004 - Jan. 16, 2005, and then in New York, Feb. 26 - Aug. 7, 2005.

And Montana painter Charles Fritz, in collaboration with the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana-Missoula, has created a national traveling exhibit of paintings devoted to the Corps of Discovery. Five years ago, Fritz began to travel along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Since then, he notes, "I have traveled the whole route twice, cumulatively."

The exhibit is on view at the university through Sept. 11. From there it will begin its journey to institutions and galleries in several other Montana cities, Oregon, Oklahoma and Georgia. …