'Rethinking the Boundaries of Western American Art' Virtual Program Accompanies 'Creating the American West in Art' Exhibition at The Frist Art Museum

  • January 26, 2021 09:53

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

The Frist Art Museum presents Creating the American West in Art, an exhibition of nearly 80 paintings and sculptures ranging in date from 1822 to 1946 and made by such notable artists as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Remington, Charles Marion Russell, E. Irving Couse, Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Maynard Dixon. Drawn from the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, the exhibition will be on view at the Frist from March 5 through June 27, 2021.

For many, the words “American West” have long conjured a concept as much as a location. Throughout the 19th and 20th 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. This exhibition offers the occasion to explore the nuances of a complex American West, including its often-challenging history—especially regarding the forced displacement of Native Americans—and its vibrant and diverse natural beauty.

E. Martin Hennings. The Rabbit Hunt, ca. 1925. Oil on canvas, 35 1/2 x 39 1/2 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.449. © E. Martin Hennings

“As our vision is to use art to encourage our guests to see the world in new ways, we often collaborate with members of various communities to assist in broadening views of the subject matter,” says Frist Art Museum curator Katie Delmez. In preparation for the fall 2019 presentation of Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, the Frist worked with members of their local Indigenous community to form an advisory group. “Because Indigenous figures and culture are represented in works of art made by Euro-American artists in Creating the American West in Art, we invited several of our advisers to offer their perspectives on what is depicted,” says Delmez. “In foregrounding Indigenous voices, we hope our guests will consider a more inclusive narrative of the works in this exhibition.”

Most of the artists represented in this exhibition spent years studying in Europe—predominantly Italy, Germany, and France. They returned to the United States, however, determined to distinguish themselves through uniquely American subjects. “Depictions of the West made in an array of styles over the course of 150 plus years crystallized key components of American history and mythology, including the concepts of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism,” says Delmez.

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.

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

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.

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.

Robert Henri. Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake/Indian Girl/Romancita), 1914. Oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 32 1/2 in. Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.461

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.

“For artists interested in innovative forms of visual expression, the American West maintained its prominence as a source of inspiration in the twentieth century,” writes Delmez. “Its dramatic physical geography and bold light lent themselves to more abstracted styles pursued by a new generation of artists, from Thomas Hart Benton to Marsden Hartley.”


Friday, March 5

5:30 p.m.                                     

Rethinking the Boundaries of Western American Art presented by Thomas Brent Smith, director and curator, Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum 

Register here                                

With their long-standing connection to history painting and accounts of westward expansion, works of western American art have more often than not been viewed, celebrated, and critiqued more on the basis of historical authenticity than artistic merit. This has left the field with distinct barriers and limited its inclusiveness. Rethinking the boundaries of western American art with a consideration for artistic merit rather than historical authenticity can shape a more robust canon.

Since joining the Denver Art Museum in 2008, Thomas Brent Smith has overseen the growth of its western art collection and its ambitious projects, including its highly successful annual symposia and the publication series Western Passages. His numerous curatorial projects include groundbreaking exhibitions such as The American West in Bronze with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Western: An Epic in Art and Film with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and A Place in the Sun: The Southwest Paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings. Smith has co-authored or edited books on a wide range of topics related to western American art, including the award-winning Once Upon a Time . . . The Western: A New Frontier in Art and Film (2019). Smith is a former Getty Leadership Institute fellow and current president of the Museums West consortium.

William Jacob Hays. Herd of Buffalo, 1862. Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 48 1/2 in. Denver Art Museum: Fred E. Gates Fund, 1960.39

Exhibition Catalogue

The American West in Art: Selections from the Denver Art Museum showcases the collection of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art. This beautifully illustrated companion volume to the exhibition features twenty-two essays that lead the reader through the history of western American art, from artists’ journeys to the West in the 1800s to the modernism of the 1930s and 1940s. A prologue by Dan Flores (University of Montana) and an epilogue by Erika Doss (University of Notre Dame) frame historical and contemporary perspectives by Denver Art Museum’s Thomas Brent Smith, Jennifer R. Henneman, and Molly Medakovich. The retail price is $45. Frist Art Museum Members receive a 10 percent discount on most gift shop purchases.

The exhibition is organized by the Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum.


Tags: american art

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