Cowboys and Indians; for Many Artists, Painting America's Wild West Did Not Require Actually Seeing the Place with Their Own Eyes

By Theil, Stefan | Newsweek International, October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Cowboys and Indians; for Many Artists, Painting America's Wild West Did Not Require Actually Seeing the Place with Their Own Eyes


Theil, Stefan, Newsweek International


Byline: Stefan Theil

The American West has always been a great canvas for the imagination--not just America's own but much of the world's. White Americans, naturally, still see themselves in the settler or cowboy, national icons for freedom, adventure and Manifest Destiny. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to identify more with the American Indian--who to them symbolizes an existence that is at once noble, natural and uncorrupted by modernity. Both views, of course, are idealized cliches that have long had lives of their own.

At least that's the point made by a fascinating new exhibit at Frankfurt's Schirn Kunsthalle. "I like America--Fictions of the Wild West" (until Jan. 7, 2007) looks at the West in painting, print and sculpture from 1825 to 1950. From the 19th-century portraits of Indian chiefs by American artists who never made it west of the Mississippi, to the 20th-century German expressionists who chose Native Americans they'd never encountered to populate a happy Arcadia, what we see is never what it seems.

As the show points out, America's own view of the West was greatly influenced by the transatlantic connection. Many of America's most important 19th-century artists were German immigrants, or trained at the then-famous Dusseldorf school of landscape painting. In what's probably the grandest frontier painting of them all, Alfred Bierstadt's "Emigrants Crossing the Plains" (1867), the Rockies look more like the Alps--and the magnificently detailed oaks look less at home in American Indian country than on the banks of the Rhine. …

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