Beyond Awesome The Grandeur of the West in Western Art.

Grandeur Western Art True West Magazine
Charles M. Russell’s 1919 oil Fighting Meat (a.k.a. Horse and the Hunter) (15 x 24 inches) reflects the Montana artist’s personal knowledge of the Western landscape, Native peoples and nature with the classic Western art style that celebrates the grandeur of the American West.
— Courtesy The Peterson Family Collection, on display in the exhibition Courage and Crossroads: A Visual Journey through the Early American West at Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West/ScottsdaleMuseumWest.org

Grandeur is often associated with the paintings of early artists of the American West: George Caleb Bingham, Karl Bodmer, William Jacob Hays, Thomas Moran, Alfred Jacob Miller, John Mix Stanley and especially Albert Bierstadt.

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German-born artist Albert Bierstadt’s massive 1863 oil-on-canvas, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (73.5 x 120.75 inches) debuted in 1864 in New York at a fundraiser for disabled Union veterans to great fanfare, selling to an American collector for $25,000. The public embraced his epic, panoramic, exaggerated style that celebrated the West’s natural beauty and Native people, as illustrated in the painting by the Shoshone village in the foreground. — Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.123 —

The later is the subject of a new exhibition, Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West, closing at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Whitney Western Art Museum in Cody, Wyoming, Sept. 30, 2018, before moving to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Nov. 1, 2018 – Feb. 10, 2019. The University of Oklahoma Press has published a companion book—written by Peter H. Hassrick, director emeritus and senior scholar at the Center of the West, with contributions by other art scholars—that reappraises the career of Bierstadt (1830-1902).

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Alfred Jacob Miller, one of America’s most influential Western artists of the early 19th century, traveled West with the American Fur Company in 1837. After his return to Baltimore, Maryland, the European-trained artist produced a major exhibition based on his travels, including his 1839 oil-on-canvas Pipe of Peace at the Rendezvous (39 x 67.5 inches).
— Courtesy Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, Bequest of H.J. Lutcher Stark, 1965, 31.34.29 —

Bierstadt certainly illustrated the West’s grandeur, but Karen McWhorter, the Whitney’s Scarlett Curator of Western American Art, prefers another word.

“I think of awesome,” she says, “which has been used in pop culture since the ’90s for so many different things, like awe-inspiring, truly awestruck. Words to describe the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains.”

Besides, “the grandeur and sublimity of the Western landscape is a more loaded subject than might be predicted, as the manner in which it has shaped our ideas and aspirations relies as much on fact as on imagination and projection,” says Toby Jurovics, chief curator at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.

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Hudson River School-trained artist-explorer Albert Bierstadt traveled the wild lands of the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Nevada regions of the West during the 1860s and 1870s. His famous 1870 oil-on-canvas Sierra Nevada Morning (71.125 x 101 inches) is an extraordinary example of his virtuoso style, meticulous attention to detail and romanticism.
— Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation, 1955. 0126.230 —

urovics singles out Bodmer and Miller among the earliest Anglo-European artists to visit the West. “Bodmer’s careful and deliberate watercolors made along the Upper Missouri are prized for their topographic accuracy and rigorous attention to detail, while Miller’s romantic vistas became the backdrop for action and adventure. The difference in their approaches reflects the desires of their patrons—Bodmer working for the naturalist Prince Maximilian of Wied, and Miller for the Scottish nobleman Sir William Drummond Stewart—but it also encapsulates the ongoing tension between our romanticized vision of the landscape and the often unpleasant truths of Western expansion that are masked by the beauty of the Western horizon,” Jurovics explains.

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Albert Bierstadt’s 1865 oil-on-board Departure of an Indian War Party (17.125 x 24.125 inches) is a primary example of the master artist’s luministic, rarified light for which he and his peers George Caleb Bingham and Frederic Edwin Church were celebrated in the 19th century.
— Courtesy Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington. Haub Family Collection. Gift of Erivan and Helga Haub, 2014.6.8 —

Bierstadt might have saved his best work for his last great Western paintings, the two versions he created in 1888 of The Last of the Buffalo, an allegory for the end of the American bison and the Plains Indians’ way of life.

“If you look at the trajectory of his career, you can see the shift from a very idyllic, beautiful and peaceful West to the opposite, showing the destruction of those things in a very poetic statement,” says Laura F. Fry, the Gilcrease’s senior curator.

Art, of course, is always in the eye of the beholder.

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Hudson River School artist like Bierstadt, Thomas Hill traveled with photographer Carleton Watkins to California’s Yosemite Valley in 1865. Hill spent much of his career painting grand Western landscapes such as his 1880 oil-on-canvas Mount Hood; Mount Rainer (42.75 x 65.5 inches).
— Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, GM 01.1591 —

“You won’t often find a group of dyed-in-the-wool genuine cowboys gathered at an art gallery discussing the virtues of any particular piece of art hanging on the wall,” says Brent Harris of the Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City, Kansas. “Yet most true cowboys have a deep appreciation for art.”

Besides, “cowboy” artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell knew a thing or two about landscapes.

Mary Burke, director of the Sid Richardson Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, points to Remington’s 1909 oil-on-canvas Buffalo Runners-Big Horn Basin. “The land is expansive, sun-struck,” Burke says, “but the human figures are in concert with the land. And in this case, there is a sense of freedom, exhilaration in the figures.”

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Thomas Moran was one of Bierstadt’s greatest competitors in the panoramic Western landscape marketplace of post-Civil War America. Art publisher Louis Prang helped spread Moran’s fame when he reproduced the artist’s original 1876 watercolor The Mountain of the Holy Cross (13.625 x 90.625 inches) as an affordable chromolithograph.
— Courtesy the Joslyn Museum, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens, 2001.40.10 —

Adds Emily Wilson, curator at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana: “As a master storyteller, we can think of Russell’s paintings collectively as an anthology of the
stories-so-far of the Montana landscape—its flora, fauna and wildlife—in relationship to the domestic and the human. They are an echo of its distant history, its present as painted and, for us, as a contemporary audience, its relevance today.”

Over time, Bierstadt’s interpretations of the West fell out of favor. “He didn’t keep up with trends of his time,” Hassrick says. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Bierstadt’s awesomeness began to be reassessed.

Twentieth-century artists depicted the West’s grandeur in their own styles.

“Maynard Dixon created dramatic images of the Western landscape that convey the power of nature,” says Sarah E. Boehme, curator of the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas. “His imagery featured the desert landscape, a different iconography from the towering mountainscapes of Bierstadt. In the late 20th century, Wilson Hurley addressed the expansive and compelling landscapes of the American West. His use of light and his experience as a pilot bring a heightened sensibility to his representations.”

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Like his European peers, Albert Bierstadt sought out the most significant and magnificent natural landscapes in person before attempting to paint them in all their grandeur. His 188 oil-on-canvas, Yellowstone Falls (44.25 x 30.5 inches), was created after his initial visit to America’s first national park.
— Courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Taggart. 2.63 —

That continues today. In Big Horn, Wyoming, The Brinton Museum recently featured a major exhibition of works by contemporary landscape artist Paul Waldum, whose influences include Moran and Yellowstone National Park.

“Waldum’s work is about the mood and atmosphere of the outdoors and using his knowledge and abilities to translate that scene onto paper for the rest of us to interact with, using our personal experiences as translators of the Wyoming and Montana landscape,” says Kenneth L. Schuster, the Brinton’s director and chief curator.

Today’s artists continue to reinterpret the West, much as Bierstadt did in the 1800s.

There will always be an audience for landscape art that speaks to the West as a spectacular, special environment, images that set the region and its natural monuments apart from other parts of the country,” says Amy Scott, chief curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

The desire to look at places like Grand Canyon, the Sierras or the Rockies as emblematic of American exceptionalism is part of our cultural DNA. At the same time, artists have much greater freedom in what places they select to paint and how they paint them, whether that means abstraction or the urban West. There is a recognition, and even a celebration, in contemporary landscapes that the West is not one place, and that its experience and meaning vary depending on where you live and who you are.”

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Albert Bierstadt visited California’s Sierra Nevada and Yosemite for seven weeks in 1863. He soon became a great promoter of the area’s natural wonder, lobbying for its protection as a wilderness. His circa 1870 oil-on-canvas Sunrise, Yosemite Valley reflects his magnificent style and his passion for the future national park.
— Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1966.1 —
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Like many Western artists before and after him, Albert Bierstadt’s first foray to the West was with a survey party. The 1860 oil-on-canvas Wind River Country is one of Bierstadt’s first major works produced from his participation in Col. Frederick West Lander’s 1859 expedition.
— Courtesy Petrie Institute of Western American Art, The Denver Art Museum The Charles H. Bayly Collection, 1987.47 —
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N.C. Wyeth immersed himself in the American Southwest in 1904. His illustrative early 20th-century oil-on-canvas Song of the Eagle That Mates with the Storm is representative of the classic landscapes of the late 19th century.
— Courtesy Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, GM 0127.1545 —
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Albert Bierstadt’s 1871 oil-on-canvas Western Landscape was known for many years as Mount Whitney, but art historian Gordon Hendricks has demonstrated through careful research of Bierstadt’s travels that the painting was created after an 1864 visit to Crystal Lake in southwest Mono County, near Yosemite.
— Courtesy Newark Art Museum, Purchase 1961 The Members’ Fund 61.516 —
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Western landscape artist Thomas Moran accompanied federal land surveyor Ferdinand Hayden on his mission West in 1871. Moran’s resulting body of artwork, including his circa 1874-’75 watercolor Yellowstone Tower Falls and Sulfur Rock, Yellowstone, influenced the founding of Yellowstone National Park.
— Courtesy Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, The Peterson Family Collection —
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Western landscape artist Lewis A. Ramsey moved as a boy with his family to Utah in 1885. In the early decades of the 20th century he became one of the West’s leading landscape artists and one of the first to paint Utah’s natural wonders, including The Entrance to Zion, his 1936 oil-on-masonite.
— Courtesy St. George Art Museum, St. George, Utah —
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Nebraska native Dale Nichols, a peer of contemporary 20th-century Midwestern artists Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, became nationally recognized for his modern interpretation of the classic Western landscape, as seen in his 1940 oil-on-canvas Evening in the Foothills.
— Courtesy Tucson Art Museum —
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Thomas Moran’s 1893 oil-on-canvas Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, is a signature piece in the Western artist’s storied career as one of the influential painters who accompanied land surveyors during the late 19th-century.
— Courtesy Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, The Peterson Family Collection —
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Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, considered by many to be the most accurate painter of Plains Indian culture in the early decades of the 19th century, painted Fort Union on the Missouri (Tableau 28) after he visited the outpost on the Upper Missouri River as a member of German Prince Maximilian of Wied’s Western survey party in 1833.
— Courtesy Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, Engraving on Paper, 91.121.24 —
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Following in the tradition of the earliest Western artists who traveled West, Andy Thomas’s 2006 oil-on-linen Buffalo Running captures the sheer energy of an Indian hunter astride his horse hunting with a bow and arrow in the midst of a buffalo stampede.
— Courtesy Andy Thomas, Maze Creek Studios —
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California cowboy-turned-artist Edward Borein’s undated watercolor Cowboy Turning Steer, which depicts both the grandeur of the landscape and cowboys at work, reflects the influence of the first great cowboy-artist, Charles M. Russell.
— Courtesy Northeastern Nevada Museum, Elko, Nevada —
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The West’s first 19th-century black landscape artist, famed lithographer Grafton Tyler Brown, painted this 1891 oil-on-canvas Castle Geyser, Yellowstone after his travels to the national park from his home in Portland, Oregon.
— Courtesy Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Museum purchase through the generosity of Harrison Eiteljorg —
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New York City artist William Smith Jewett followed the gold to California in 1849. His 1859 oil-on-board Yosemite Falls is one of the earliest known paintings of the future national park. Note the artist’s fellow travelers in foreground of the park’s namesake falls.
— Courtesy Newark Museum, Gift of Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, 1977, 77.5 —

Grandeur Western Art True West Magazine

Peter H. Hassrick’s Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (University of Oklahoma Press, $35), published in cooperation with the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, is an accompaniment to the exhibition of the same name at the BBCW’s Whitney Western Art Museum and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

For years, Johnny D. Boggs has written about art for True West and several other publications, even though he can’t draw anything awesome.

2018 WWA Spur Award Winners

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