The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



Narratives of the Frontier Experience

Whereas Stanley, Catlin, and other artists early in the nineteenth century were infatuated with Indian life, there evolved among the next generation of artists, during the mid-1800s, a school of narrative paintings that was fundamentally Anglo-centric. Most of these works were genre scenes of pioneer life on the frontier. A few ascend to the level of history painting, at the time considered a more lofty pursuit than genre, portrait, or landscape painting.

Within these narrative pictures a number of dominant themes prevailed. Some repeated the mythic concepts discussed earlier, while others provided fresh, new insights. Many of the midcentury genre artists presented the West as a redemptive experience, a place that was apart from the seemingly degenerate East and that could, by virtue of its innocence, provide for a regenerated community. Some modern scholars have also ascribed to this vision of the West as a barren but dangerous wilderness that required conquering and civilizing. This notion fits comfortably within the progress myth that established a foundation for the precepts of Manifest Destiny. Conquest was celebrated and exalted, whether it was a function of the democratic process through the actions of the common man or a result of progress and evolving technologies such as the railroads. In both cases, progress seemed to encounter few insurmountable impediments, from either indigenous cultures or natural barriers such as mountain ranges and deserts, and eventually became the hallmark of national identity, a perceived moral and spiritual victory for the Anglo-American people.

The frontier experience nurtured the democratic system, according to later historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner, and the common man, as a representative of the democratic system, found a welcome place in the canvases of the genre and history painters. The frontiersman as a folk figure rapidly assumed heroic proportions. In particular, the mountain man and hunter attained epic dimensions. Having escaped the constraints of eastern society by living in harmony with the western wilderness, these otherwise pedestrian trappers were identified as ideal, liberated men.

Such characters inhabiting that wilderness stage produced rich material for the evolving narrative tradition. Some of the pictorial anecdotes that unfolded portrayed a spiritual and cultural bond between native peoples and the Anglo-American intruders. Trappers' marriages to Indian women was a commonly depicted scene, especially in the works of Alfred Jacob Miller, who produced multiple variations on the theme. Other artists concentrated on the fractious results of cultural intercourse. These depictions, customarily ladened with ethnocentric biases weighted against the Indians, conjured up adventure, danger, and life-or-death scenarios.

Although some of the artists who worked in the narrative genre never stepped west of the Mississippi River, most did. Many who actually visited the frontier in those years did so in search of personal adventure as much as for scenes to preserve on canvas. They perceived themselves as being as heroic as the epic subjects they assigned themselves to paint. When John Mix Stanley arrived at the camp of the Blackfoot Indians on the upper Missouri River in 1853 and found that they were not out hunting buffalo as he expected, he organized a hunt himself. In this way he could not only document the activity but also participate directly in the frontier adventure.


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