The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



The Artist as Explorer


The initial chapter in the history of western art can be called the era of exploratory art. It was primarily a landscape tradition mixing Enlightenment appetites for the picturesque and sublime with the requisite exactitudes of topographical and scientific documentation, as exemplified by the Anglo- American explorers roaming the western reaches in search of new discoveries. Although the first major western expedition, that carried out by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1803-4, did not include trained artists, most later ones did. Stephen H. Long, who came to the Rocky Mountains in 1820, brought not one but two painters as part of his retinue. Titian Ramsay Peale, who had joined the expedition to collect and record natural history specimens, painted some of the first views of antelope and bison on the open prairies and provided pictorial documentation of Indian lifestyles witnessed by the party. Peale's brilliant little sketch entitled Indian Brave on Horseback (figure 66) became the prototype for his subsequent depictions of the buffalo hunt and a model for generations of later artists who found that theme emblematic of western life. Peale's associate, Samuel Seymour, was hired to portray landscape views. His precise yet delicate topographical renditions of mountain scenery provided not simply a record of discovery but also a confirmation, through the poetry of the picturesque, of the West's allure and accessibility.

From the 1820s through the middle of the century, such documentary landscape work became common illustrative adjuncts to most U.S. government reports of western expeditions. The largest number of such works appeared in the reports summarizing the findings of multiple expeditions across the West in the 1850s in search of the most viable route for a transcontinental railroad. More than a dozen artists were employed to illustrate the twelve volumes that recounted the findings of those forays. The most prolific of these explorer-artists was John Mix Stanley. His watercolor field study Fort Union and Distribution of Goods to the Assiniboins (figure 43) is exemplary of the work he produced on the Isaac Stevens railroad survey, which traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Puget Sound, Washington, in 1853.

Stanley was also part of a small group of artists in the West who sought to assemble what came to be known as Indian galleries, encyclopedic collections of paintings of American Indians that were shown from city to city as traveling exhibitions. These consisted primarily of portraits but also featured scenes of Indian life and landscape views of the regions explored. Fascinated especially by Indian gambling and smoking habits, Stanley returned to these themes in his paintings time and again, especially in his later work. Stanley's Indian gallery, which eventually consisted of more than 150 paintings, was exhibited widely across the United States in the 1850s and 1860s but was tragically lost to a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865.

The most renowned of the Indian galleries was that assembled by George Catlin in the 1830s. It boasted more than six hundred paintings and found its most enthusiastic audiences in Europe, especially England and France. Catlin shared Stanley's interests in landscapes and portraits but enhanced them with a strong quasi-scientific bent. From firsthand observation he not only painted Indian life but also wrote prodigiously and effectively about the subject.


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