The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



In Retrospect


A review of these western artists and their works would reveal how easy it is to romanticize these productions and their creators as servants of nationalistic imperative. The western experience, perceived for generations as a quintessentially American phenomenon, played openly into the hands of artists who wished to find recognition for making a contribution to their national art scene. They adopted, quite naturally, the sentiments of their times as well as the contemporary value systems, extrapolating from them perspectives that served to govern their interpretations of the quickly evolving frontier.

Today, some of those sentiments and values are difficult to justify, much less excuse. The myth of linear progress led to gross exploitations of what appeared to be bountiful, limitless natural resources but turned out to be rather fragile, delicately balanced, frequently nonrenewable natural assets. Cultural clashes resulted in the desecration of once proud and self-reliant native peoples. The western railroads, which promised industrial might and political solidarity, also spelled disaster for the huge herds of bison that once roamed the plains. And the bonanza of reckless waste that accompanied the early cattle and mining industries ravished the land, depriving it of much of the beauty that so captured the fancy of artists and their audiences in the first place.

The ironies exposed here are multiple and the artists, by facilitating or enhancing the popularity of those sometimes misguided value systems, are as culpable as any of the players in the frontier drama. Russell extolled the cattlemen, Bierstadt and Moran served railroad interests, and Miller romanticized the fur seekers who overtrapped most of the Rockies' rivers and streams.

To excuse the prodigality of the nineteenth century would be beyond reproach today. Yet to cast only an inimical eye in that direction serves little purpose either. The artists of the West accommodated their society's needs and tastes, for good or for evil, and their own imaginations, sometimes with facts and more often with fancy. In the effort to appreciate western history and understand the evolving artistic traditions that it nurtured and that in turn nurtured it, their work can be savored today.


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