Art of the American West: The Amon Carter Museum's Collection Chronicles All Aspects of Western Life, from the 1840s to the Present. (Museum Today)

By Stewart, Rick | USA TODAY, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Art of the American West: The Amon Carter Museum's Collection Chronicles All Aspects of Western Life, from the 1840s to the Present. (Museum Today)


Stewart, Rick, USA TODAY


THE HISTORY of the Amon Carter Museum's collection of western American art began with the institution's founder, Fort Worth, Tex., publisher and philanthropist Amon G. Carter Sr. (1879-1955). He started his own collection in 1935 with the purchase of a painting by Frederic Remington and a small group of watercolors by Charles M. Russell. According to Carter, his interest in these two leading artists of the American West stemmed from his close friendship with the noted American humorist Will Rogers, who had been a personal friend of Russell's.

Carter was also interested in the history of the western experience. He had been born in a log cabin and never forgot the simple upbringing and self-reliant values he learned as a youth. A decade before he began collecting art, Carter purchased 780 acres of lakefront property that had belonged to one of the pioneer ranching families of the region, built a large house, and christened it Shady Oak. Over the next several years, he moved a number of historic buildings onto the property, filling some of them with historical artifacts to remind himself of his humble beginnings.

During Carter's lifetime, Shady Oak was visited by the rich and famous, and he instituted the custom of presenting each of his visitors with a short-brim Stetson, which he dubbed the "Shady Oak hat." Rogers received a hat on at least two occasions, joking the second time that he was getting "another bum hat deal." At the bottom of a photograph of Carter and Rogers, tight-lipped and looking into the camera, Rogers wrote: "Amon--this is a remarkable photo--it caught us both not talking."

Carter increased his collecting activities following Rogers' tragic death in an airplane crash in 1935. He bought wisely, learning from early mistakes and actively seeking the advice of those who had firsthand knowledge of the work of Remington and Russell. By 1950, he had amassed a sizeable collection, part of which was displaced in the Fort Worth Library and elsewhere for the benefit of the public. In that year, he wrote a formal letter to the Fort Worth City Council to request that a parcel of land be set aside for a future gift. "It is my purpose to erect and equip a museum and present it to the city of Fort Worth" he announced. His own collection would form the core of an institution devoted to the study of western art. To that end, Carter acquired a major private library of western Americana, forming the basis of what eventually would become a nationally recognized research library on American art.

However, Carter did not live to see the opening of the museum he had envisioned. The Amon Carter Museum, designed by architect Philip Johnson, opened its doors to the public in January, 1961, six years after its founder's death. Yet, Carter would have been pleased to see his conception carded so ably forward by his family and friends. "Amon G. Carter was born and raised in a frontier community," his old friend C.R. Smith wrote in the museum's inaugural publication. "He acquired there the habits which later brought success to his business life." For Carter, western art celebrated the heart of the American experience, and he wanted to share its lessons with others.

From the beginning, the museum's mission was to continue Carter's high standards when it came to additional acquisitions to expand the collection. The institution's first director, Mitchell A. Wilder, stated that "Mr. Carter's personal dedication to the frontier West and the collection which he brought together have provided the incentive and the means to achieve worthy ends. …

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