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Art Touched On Almost Everything In American Life

This indigenous American art form focuses on the frontier West that existed in North America. Set on the American frontier in a geographically western (trans-Mississippi) setting with romantic, sweeping frontier landscapes or rugged rural terrain. However, it may extend back to the time of America's colonial period or forward to the mid-20th century, or as far geographically as Mexico.

Western Art as such is a thing apart from old-time western life. Except for "Custer's Last Fight," which hung in countless saloons, few western pictures circulated on the frontier until livestock commission firms began sending elaborate calendars to their customers. These were often prepared by nationally renowned illustrators who glamorized western life.

But long before that time, eastern artists had been painting for easterners a West that incorporated and fixed the national dream. No hardier band of adventurers ever went into the untamed wilderness than the "brothers of the brush and palette" who accompanied various public and private expeditions to capture pictorially the magnitude and the beauty of the "undiscovered" lands. Those early painters included stalwart pioneers like Samuel Seymour, George Catlin, Carl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller and John Mix Stanley. Theirs was a reportorial craft rather than an art practiced for esthetic or inspirational sustenance. They came to record what they saw and to bring back pictorial evidence for government reports, scientific investigations and narratives of high adventure.

While George Catlin is generally regarded as the first painter of the West whose work has survived, in actual time he was preceded by Samuel Seymour, who traveled with Stephen Long's expedition up the South Platte in 1819-20. Seymour is said to have done about 150 pictures, crudely rendered for the most part, but nonetheless authentic. Though most of his work has disappeared, his fame rests upon his having been the first to provide a view of the Rockies. From the very beginning Indians became symbols of the West, but for many generations all Indians in pictures looked pretty much alike. By the 1820's, when the United States was reforming its Indian policy, representatives from many tribes were coming to Washington. Portraits of these visitors painted by Charles Bird King became the nucleus of the government's "Indian Gallery," which grew by future acquisitions into a sizable collection that was eventually housed in the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to King's work, the "gallery" acquired paintings by others, including George Catlin and John Mix Stanley, both of whom had seen "wild" Indians. Most of the Indians whose portraits were painted came from the midland forests and southern swamps, not from the faraway and unexplored West; but a few from those distant lands were brought to Washington, and fortunately some portraits of them have been preserved.

The two men who dominate the early documentary western field are George Catlin and Carl Bodmer, both of whom journeyed up the Missouri River, crossing the Great Plains during the 1830's. Catlin, as a young man, made his living painting portraits in Philadelphia. One day he saw a delegation of Indians being conducted to Washington. Their beaded clothes and stately feathers fascinated him, and he resolved to devote his life to painting wild Indians in their western homes. Though he had only limited funds, he traveled on a fur-trader's boat as far up the Missouri as the Yellowstone, where he spent a month at Fort Union painting the red men. His most important works depict the rites and ceremonies of the Mandan, among whom he saw horrors and tortures seldom witnessed by white men. He completed many hundreds of paintings and sketches which he eventually organized into a traveling exhibit that he supplemented with tribal paraphernalia and living models wearing Indian costumes. His exhibitions created the image of the Old West which still exists.

Unlike Catlin, who traveled without subsidy, Carl Bodmer went up the Missouri River in 1833 as a member of a scientific expedition led by a German princeling, Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied. Bodmer's job was to draw with scientific accuracy, but he also incorporated artistry in his work, which was printed in a folio volume of his patron's study entitled Reise in das innere Nord-Amerika in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834, later appearing in many English translations of this study. No other work of its kind attained such renown or has been so frequently reproduced as source material. A superb draftsman and accomplished portraitist, Bodmer was outstanding in his vitality and exactitude. His details were precise, minute and exquisite without being labored. His pictures were painted mainly to portray the Indian's accoutrements, his costumes and ornaments; the cut and tie of his moccasins, shirts and leggings; the headdress with its fur, horns and feathers; the ceremonial lance with blade, feathered decorations and dangling scalps; the war paint and body decorations; the tomahawks and war bonnets.

Among the most famous artists of the pre-Civil War period was Alfred Jacob Miller, a talented painter from Baltimore who was employed by the Scottish nobleman, William Drummond Stewart, to accompany him on a western hunting expedition in 1837. Miller came back with sketches and water colors of unusually high quality. From these he painted murals to adorn Sir William's castle in Scotland. He also faithfully copied many of them at twelve dollars each for William T. Walters. The originals remained in the Miller family for almost a century; but by 1860 some ninety of the copies had been delivered to Walters, and it is this fabulous collection that now resides in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. Miller's pictures are important, being the only spot drawings of a trapper rendezvous. He captured the gaiety and excitement of those picturesque gatherings. From him we learn the details of the men's equipment, see the good-looking native women, watch the feasts and dances. Much impressed by Joseph Mallord Turner's water colors, their soft lights and hazy landscapes, Miller used the Turner technique to create the crystal clear atmosphere of the West, and in this he failed completely; but the charm of his drawings and the romance of his subjects' lives make his pictures rank historically with the most valuable western productions.

About mid-century, a generation or so after the Amerindic painters had introduced the public to the wild savages and their primitive ways, a group of landscapists began to gain popularity by depicting the wondrous natural beauty of the West. Gallery showings of their canvases attracted large crowds of visitors who gazed in awe at the scenic splendors of the Sierra Nevada and the Yellowstone. If the viewer could not readily act on Greeley's advice, "Go West, young man," he could at least enjoy vicariously the grandeur displayed in the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, F. E. Church, Thomas Moran and, later, William Keith. The enormity in scale of these painters' works, their panoramic sweep, startled and captivated audiences.

Paintings, galleries and museums, however, were not the only means by which the image of the West was conveyed. Americans of a century ago could be grateful that the art of reproduction and the processes of commercial lithography were perfected and that a dozen firms, most prominent of which was Currier & Ives, spewed out millions of popular pictures at a price well within reach of all. With a full understanding of the popular psychology and merchandising policies to match, this enterprising firm published western prints that catered to our cherished folk symbol. The services of many fine artists were employed where special talents were called for - in landscape, hunting scene, Indian encounter, westward trek or steamboat run. The wide influence of the huge Currier & Ives output upon mass audiences cannot be underestimated, and it is safe to say that it easily outweighed the combined impact of contemporary American painters for several decades following the Civil War.

It was inevitable that the latter half of the nineteenth century, which witnessed such a surge in pioneer settlement in the West, should have found worthy artists to depict the romance of this migration. Skirmishes, ambushes and Indian encounters, the drive by covered wagon or iron horse, the glories and miseries of frontier life, all found their way into visual expression. The painter's field was considerably broadened by the demands of the weeklies, which now bid for illustrators and published genre pictures in each issue, catering to a combined circulation of about a half-million readers. Artists like Winslow Homer, W. M. Cary, T. R. Davis, Paul Frenzeny, Jules Tavernier, Rufus Zogbaum and A. R. Waud appeared regularly in such magazines as Harper's Weekly and Leslie's. The exigencies of reproducing machine-age art often caused the final result, as interpreted by the wood engraver under pressure of deadlines, to be far removed from the artist's original. But the lack of esthetic fidelity was offset by the fact that these pictures were reaching millions who were remote from direct contact with any art forms.

The closing years of the century saw a growing number of painters who left vital and colorful records of the excitement of the already vanishing West. Among the thousands of easterners who joined the movement were a small group of determined artists and sketch reporters, either on official assignments or on their own. Charles Schreyvogel, for example, limned swashbuckling cavalry charges, kidnappings by Indian renegades, attacks on stockades and sackings of Indian villages. Following the overnight success of "My Bunkie," his pictures attracted huge crowds wherever they were shown. Henry Farny, too, was celebrated both here and abroad for his fine renditions of the western scene with strong emphasis on the role of the Indian. A simple, quiet setting featuring some central theme characterized his most successful canvases including "The Last Vigil," "The Captive" and "Song of the Talking Wire."

The American firm of Currier and Ives has a very secure place in art history. They could even be described as a cultural phenomenon of the Victorian era. This company produced a huge number of prints from paintings as black and white lithographs that were hand colored. From 1834 to 1907, Currier and Ives cornered the market in affordable prints and even promoted its lithographs as "colored engravings for the people."

Nathaniel T. Currier was the artistic one. After working for several lithographic firms, he opened his own business and began producing prints of actual events that captured the attention of ordinary Americans. Ives was James Merritt Ives, the company's bean-counter, who was invited by Currier to become his partner. Ives wasn't just good at book-keeping but he also had a sharp idea about popular art and what would sell. The partnership prospered.

At least 7,500 lithographs were produced by this firm. Currier and Ives' lithographs touched on almost everything in American life during this period â€" the growing cities, the railway, hunting, conflict in the West, gold mining, exploration, politics and much more. The business expanded as far as London but eventually collapsed after being overtaken by new technologies.

But it remained for Frederic Remington and his successor, Charles M. Russell, to epitomize the vanishing West in many of its aspects. The sun-baked cowboy or buckaroo, the ranch hand, the bronco, corral and roundup-countless incidents of rugged life on the Plains were depicted by these artists with their supreme gift of narration. Their deft and unforgettable strokes filled in the canvas that had been prepared by a procession of keen observers for seventy-five years.

Jay Monaghan. The Art of the American West. The Book of the American West Simon & Schuster New York, NY 1969.


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