“Creating the American West in Art,” at The Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN

Maynard Dixon. Wide Lands of the Navajo, 1945. Oil on canvas board, 24 x 38 in. Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.100

The American West is an idea and a process as much as it is a location. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, depictions of the people, landscapes, and wildlife of the West fostered a sense of American identity that was rooted in a pioneering spirit of adventure and opportunity. Through nearly eighty paintings and sculptures ranging in date from 1822 to 1946, made by such artists as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, C. M. Russell, Frederic Remington, E. Irving Couse, John Sloan, and Maynard Dixon, this exhibition explores the nuances of a complex American West, including its often-challenging history, especially in relation to Indigenous people, and its vibrant cultural and artistic diversity.

Alfred Jacob Miller, Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake (Lake Fremont), about 1860s. Oil on canvas; 28 11/16 x 35 in. Denver Art Museum: Funds from Erich Kohlberg by exchange, 1961.25

Organized chronologically into five sections, the exhibition begins with a focus on the widespread curiosity about the vast wilderness and its Indigenous inhabitants during the age of artist-explorers. Figures like Alfred Jacob Miller, who first journeyed westward in 1837, hoped to re-create elements of what he saw for audiences on the East Coast and in Europe. William Jacob Hays, a noted naturalist, was interested in recording the physical characteristics of bison in his 1862 painting Herd of Buffalo, placing his subject in a hazy, otherworldly atmosphere.

Thomas Moran, A Snowy Mountain Range (Path of Souls, Idaho), 1896. Oil on canvas; 14 x 27 in. Roath Collection at the Denver Art Museum, 2013.109

The second section analyzes how sublime western landscapes offered hope for national unification after the horrors of the American Civil War. Large-scale paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran revealed the magnificence of lands seemingly unspoiled by human intrusion. But by the turn of the 20th century, railroads and barbed wire fences had ended the open-range cattle era of the American West. A third grouping in the exhibition considers the nostalgia for and memorialization of a seemingly nobler West seen in works by artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell.

Bert Geer Phillips, Pueblo Indian Girl and Wild Plum Blossoms, before 1912. Oil on canvas; 36 x 66 in.
Denver Art Museum: The Roath Collection, 2013.111

The final two sections look closely at the role of the West within the development of American modernism. “In part because of the outbreak of World War I and the closure of international borders, many American artists came West for source material, lured especially by the bright, arid environment of New Mexico,” writes Delmez. There, in 1915, Ernest Blumenschein, E. Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Bert Phillips, and others formed the Taos Society of Artists, a colony devoted to studying both the Native American and Hispanic cultures living in the desert landscape.

Highlights:

Visit the Museum

Visit the Petrie Institute of Western American Art

Creating the American West in Art at the Frist, World Christian Broadcasting

The American West in Art: Selections from the Denver Art Museum

ISBN 10: 8874399367 / ISBN 13: 9788874399369

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