Editor's note: The following article was written in conjunction with the exhibition Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, on view November 3, 2013 - April 13, 2014 at the High Museum of Art. It was published December 9, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the authors and the High Museum of Art. Related texts and images were provided by the High Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article or related texts and images please contact the High Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Go West! Art of the American Frontier

by Mindy N. Besaw and Stephanie Mayer Heydt


"Go West, young man. Go West and grow up with the country."

-attributed to Horace Greeley, 1865


Amazing things can sometimes be found in unexpected places. Such is true in the small town of Cody, Wyoming, sixty miles to the east of Yellowstone National Park. Founded in 1895 by William F. Cody (1846-1917) [figure 1: Rosa Bonheur, Col. William F. Cody, oil on canvas], more popularly known as Buffalo Bill of the "Wild West" show fame, Cody also became the site of a museum named in his honor in 1917. Now with five museums dedicated to art, history, natural history, Plains Indian cultures, and firearms, Buffalo Bill's little town of Cody has become truly a Center of the West.

Just as the Buffalo Bill Center offers a range of collections celebrating the West, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Buffalo Bill traveled his Wild West show to all points on the globe with as many as five hundred performers to deliver the "experience" of the American frontier. Exactly a century after Buffalo Bill's final visit to Atlanta in 1913, the High Museum of Art hosts over two hundred and fifty works from the celebrated collections at the Center with the exhibition Go West! Art of the American Frontier.

The dust of the Civil War had barely settled when Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, famously urged America's youth to turn from the rubble and go west. America's future was anchored in the frontier. Between 1800 and 1900, the nation more than tripled in physical size. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803, American land holdings doubled with the signing of a pen. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, less than seven percent of the American population lived west of states that bordered the Atlantic Ocean; at the century's end those regions hosted more than fifty percent. Americans were going west.

Perhaps no one better exemplifies the burgeoning American frontier than William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody. From his childhood on the frontier to his internationally-famous Wild West Show, Cody's experiences-as a Pony Express rider, a wagon master, a Civil War solider, and ultimately as a buffalo hunter earning him the nickname for his role as one of the world's best-known entertainers-span from the nineteenth century when the frontier was wild and still largely unknown, to the twentieth century when the Old West was simultaneously popularized and disappearing. [figure2-Calhoun Printing Co., Besieged Cowboys].

Just as the American West changed drastically during Cody's life, an examination of art from a century-long period reflects the shifting attitudes and perceptions of the West. In the 1830s, portraits of tribal delegations and expedition imagery satisfied public curiosity about the people in the West. By that century's end, as the population spread from coast to coast, cowboys, Native Americans, and the wildlife became romantic emblems of the past.


Into the Wilderness: Artists, Pioneers, and Plains Indian Peoples, 1830 - 1870

The first generation of artists who ventured west saw their greatest opportunity in documenting the people they encountered there. The traveling Indian Gallery became a popular format for artists to exhibit dozens or even hundreds of paintings of Native Americans and their cultural traditions [figure 3 - Henry Inman, Tai-O-Mah (Fox)]. The paintings were densely hung in groupings of a dozen or more. Some artists, like George Catlin who had lived among tribes of the Great Plains, added live performers, tipi settings and other props to enhance the entertainment experience [figure 4 - Catlin, Rain-Making Mandan]. The popularity of the Indian Gallery was short lived. In the wake of controversial laws such as the Indian Relocation Act (1830) the ethnographic and documentary emphasis of the Indian Gallery lost favor to more romantic renderings from the frontier.

Depictions of the pioneer life offered the most accessible view of the West for mid nineteenth century American audiences. Advice on the Prairie by William Ranney featured familiar and universal domestic themes in a frontier setting [figure 5­ Ranney, Advice on the Prairie]. The pioneer family, as with families anywhere, enjoyed a gathering around a fire, sharing stories. Paintings like this helped usher in changing attitudes towards the West -- from a distant and unwelcoming land inhabited by other cultures into a place that could be envisioned as home. This message was underscored in John Mix Stanley's The Last of Their Race [figure 6 - Stanley, Last of Their Race], a romantic illustration of the ultimate decline of the pioneer's most daunting foe.

The ways in which Native Americans figured into nineteenth century American art were largely prescribed by precedent. The idea of the Noble Savage, one who lived in nature beyond civilization's corrupting influences, emerged in the sixteenth century. Two centuries later the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew upon the concept to highlight the ills of modern civilization. The Native American as Noble Savage appeared in the romantic renderings of artists such as Catlin, John Mix Stanley, and Henry Inman as natural but rational beings. [figure 7 - Catlin, Crow Chief] Afforded classical attributes inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture, the "savage" was not only ennobled, but also anchored as America's ancient and wild counterpart to Europe's founding civilizations.

Objects made by Plains Indian peoples, in contrast to Euro-American paintings and photographs, offer intimate perspectives into a time of great social change. In Plains Indian cultures art embellishes the sacred and the everyday, and offers symbolic expression for spiritual beliefs. [figure 8 - Eagle Feather bonnet]. The Shoshone bonnet and trailer, for example, symbolizes the powers of buffalo -- the center of their economic and spiritual lives -- and eagles-believed to be the most powerful of birds. Warriors emulated the strength and abilities of these animals. Only if a warrior demonstrated valor in battle could he earn the right to wear the bonnet.

By the 1870s, however, these traditions were challenged as Plains peoples, once migratory hunters and farmers, faced the destruction of the great buffalo herds and were forced onto reservations. Prohibited from their sacred lands, tutored in Christian ideologies, confined to reservation land, their ways of life were forever altered. Despite their new living situation, photographs such as this one by Laton A. Huffman, who photographed the residents on Montana reservations, reflect strong individuals [figure 9 - Huffman, Pretty Nose].


The West as Landscape

The earliest representations of the frontier favored images of those who lived there -- Native Americans, trappers, scouts, and pioneers. In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the Western landscape took center stage. By the late 1860s, as a prescription against the rising influence of European trends, critics urged artists to "seize upon scenes essentially American"[1] and go west.

Artists such as Alfred Jacob Miller, Thomas Worthington Whittredge, John Frederick Kensett, presented a domesticated view, a West fit for expansion and settlement [figure 10 - Whittredge, Longs Peak from Denver]. Others, like Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, capitalized on a collective curiosity for the region [figure 11 - Moran, Golden Gate]. The West they recorded was marvelous and unexpected. The frontier became not only a place for industry and settlement but also as a destination for recreation. The first wilderness parks were founded at this time; in 1864, Yosemite Valley became the first State Park followed in 1872 by the establishment the Yellowstone as the first National Park. And increasingly railroads, which employed artists like Moran and Bierstadt to paint the wonders of the West, could take people there.


Expeditions, Photography, and the Opening of the West

By the mid-nineteenth century, Western exploration had become a competitive practice. Expedition leaders, who were pressed to bring back increasingly detailed accounts of the terrain for use by the government and the railroads, turned to the newest technologies to better record and distribute their findings.

Photography, patented in the late 1830s, became the ideal tool for capturing these new vistas. It was not until the introduction of the portable process of collodion wet-plate photography in the 1850s, however, that the medium began to replace the traditional artist-draughtsman on expeditions. By the 1860s photography was relied upon as evidence of geological discoveries. Photographs by William Henry Jackson, for example, who joined the Hayden expedition to the Yellowstone Valley in 1871, inspired Congress to set aside the region "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people"[2] as the first National Park the following year [figure 12 - William Henry Jackson, Grand Canon of the Yellowstone from Jackson's book].

The commercial applications of field photography evolved in step with its official functions. In the last decades of the nineteenth century selling images of the West had become big business. The affordable and collectable stereocards, photographically-illustrated books and mammoth-plate prints offered the most widely accessible means for the armchair tourist to experience America's remote landscapes [figure 13 - Underwood and Underwood, The Most Famous Sight in Yellowstone Park-"Old Faithful" Geyser in Action, ca. 1904, Stereograph]


The Last of the Buffalo: Bierstadt, Buffalo, and the End of an Era

Albert Bierstadt's epic painting, The Last of the Buffalo chronicles a complex and controversial history of the American West to 1888 [figure 14 - Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo]. Though largely panned by contemporary audiences as overly sensational, the painting draws attention to two endangered icons of the West -- the buffalo and the Plains Indian. Though in combat, they are united by their struggle, underscoring their shared fate in the face of Westward expansion. As the American frontier was coming to a close, the necessity for conservation and protection of the wilderness, wildlife, and even people, was realized and echoed in art.[3]

Bierstadt's choice of the buffalo as his subject reflects his participation in a growing movement to save the animal. By the 1880s, population dwindled in the hundreds after decades of reckless hunting. In 1887, Bierstadt was a founding member of Teddy Roosevelt's Boone and Crockett Club, a hunting group focused upon the protection of wildlife and named in honor of the two legendary frontier heroes. Their first success was with the passage of the Yellowstone Game Protection Act (1894) which made hunting illegal where the remaining bison herds lived. Many other artists such as Frederic Remington, Alexander Phimister Proctor, and Carl Rungius also joined the Boone and Crockett Club. Their paintings and sculpture, especially of wildlife, drew attention to the movement [figure 15 - Rungius, Big Horn Sheep].


Frontier Heroes and the Romance of the American West

In the face of the disappearing wilderness, artists responded with a longing for a frontier of the past. By the mid-1890s Native Americans no longer posed a violent threat to western settlements and the cowboy way of life was altered as fences crossed what had been open grazing land. Yet despite an increasingly modern and civilized West, in art, literature, and popular culture the West remained a scenic place populated with picturesque people frozen in time before the rapid changes that took hold of the region.

Countless depictions of cowboys by artists such as Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and N.C. Wyeth, appeared in popular journals between 1880 and 1920 when the profusion of illustrated magazines and books was especially rich. The illustrations were often based on first-hand experience with some imagination to complete the paintings in studios in the East. Wyeth, for example, traveled west only twice in his life, but was often hired to create illustrations with western subject matter [figure 16 - Wyeth, Cutting Out]. Wyeth described his first experience living and working on a ranch in Colorado during the fall roundup of 1904 as the wildest and most strenuous three weeks of his life.

Cowboys were not the only frontier type celebrated in early twentieth century art. The "Prairie Madonna" symbolized fertility, domesticity, and hope for future generations during the difficult pioneering days of the frontier, as seen in Ranney's, Advice on the Prairie in the nineteenth century, and repeated in W.H.D. Koerner's Madonna of the Prairie [figure 17 - Koerner, Madonna of the Prairie]. Koerner's painting first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post as an illustration for "The Covered Wagon," a serial story by Emerson Hough about wagon trains headed to Oregon in 1848. Encountering prairie fires and Indian arrows, the beautiful maiden Molly Wingate eventually reached Oregon, where, in the conventions of popular fiction, she found true love.[4]

Images of cowboys roping calves and breaking broncos portrayed the skills of the men, but more importantly represented a frontier ideal of freedom and individuality. Cowboys enjoyed an elevated position in American culture partially due to their rebellion against the restraints of polite society. The reality of cowboy life, however, was difficult -- they held low ranks in the class structure and were poorly paid seasonal workers, often with no permanent home. Charles M. Russell lived and worked among the cowboys in Montana. His experience as a trapper and night wrangler even earned him the title of "cowboy artist" yet his depictions of cowboys (and his Native American neighbors) reflect romance and nostalgia for a West of the past. Rather than focusing on the difficult and mundane tasks of the cowboy, Russell highlighted wild action and adventurous tales in his art. For example, a story of an incident during a spring roundup in northeastern Montana inspired Roping a Grizzly [figure 18 - Russell, Roping a Grizzly]. According to the tale, a bear had chased the camp's horses and, after several attempts, the cowboys roped and captured the beast.


Remington, the Cowboy, and the Shaping of and Artistic Vision

One man, in particular, had a strong impact on the perception of the cowboy in the early twentieth century -- Frederic Remington. By the 1890s Remington was well known as an illustrator of Old West and military subjects, and his drawings and paintings appeared as illustrations in countless journals and magazines. He had based his western imagery on his experience first as a sheep rancher in Kansas, and then on numerous trips west from his home in New Rochelle, New York.

In 1895, Remington completed The Broncho Buster, the first of only twenty bronze sculptures finished in his lifetime [figure 19 - Broncho Buster]. A uniquely American subject, the cowboy taming the wild horse was a metaphor for the ultimate conquest of the Wild West. The Broncho Buster won him immediate recognition as a sculptor. The cantilevered balance was unconventional and challenged American sculpture and foundry practices. Between 1895 and 1903, nearly eighty The Broncho Buster sculptures had been cast and sold primarily through Tiffany & Co., attesting to its popularity.

After 1900, however, Remington struggled with his art -- striving to be recognized not as a mere illustrator, but as a fine artist. In 1903 he lamented, "People won't stand for me painting sunsets...Got me pigeonholed in their minds, ...want horses, cowboys, out West things -- won't believe me if I paint anything else."[5] Nonetheless, late in his life he regularly went west to paint landscapes, not the cowboys or cavalry that had marked his illustration career.

The results were spectacular and unexpected for Remington. In these late-life paintings, Remington looked to American Impressionism for inspiration. From field sketches intended to capture color and mood [figure 20 - Remington,Sunset on the Cheyenne River] to finished impressionist paintings [figure 21 - Remington, Stormy Morning in the Bad Lands], Remington's broad brushstrokes and emphasis on color and light proved successful. Finally, in the last year of his life, he won critical acclaim for his paintings exhibited at the Knoedler Gallery in New York.


Mourning the Past: Symbolic Depictions of the Native American

In the early twentieth century, painters and sculptors depicted Native Americans in terms that reflected defeat and disappearance; as idealized historic figures; or as a timeless symbol of America. Compared to the early nineteenth century artists such as George Catlin or Alfred Jacob Miller, artists no longer aimed to record manners and customs. Instead of portraying specific tribes and identifiable individuals, the Native American in art became more generalized.

Henry Farny's painting of Native Americans reflects a wistful regret and yearning for the past. By the time Farny first traveled west in the 1880s, most Indians had been confined to reservations and the great buffalo herds had already gone, but he recreated idyllic scenes using his collection of Indian items and photographs as references [figure 22 - Farny, Days Long Ago].

James Earle Fraser's sculpture End of the Trail pointedly summarized American perception of Native Americans in the early twentieth century (figure 23 - Fraser, End of the Trail). A monumental version of this sculpture won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. It was widely popular and the silhouetted horse and rider decorated bookends, ashtrays, postcards, and collectibles. Although Native Americans were very much alive in the early twentieth century, Fraser's image perpetuated the more common stereotype of Native Americans as a disappearing race.


The Art of Survival: Traditions in a Transitional Age

Despite the powerful myth of a vanished race conveyed in painting and sculpture of the time, art by Plains Indian peoples is a statement of cultural continuity and survival. Objects from this period reveal cultural adaptations required for survival. In some cases, newly available materials replaced those that would have been used in the past -- commercial paints replaced natural pigments or cow hide replaced buffalo hide [figure 24 - hide painting]. In other cases, new forms were introduced, such as the decorated lance case, designed to hang from saddles in reservation parades that honored and encouraged remembrance of traditional acts of the past [figure 25 - lance case].


Relics of the Past

Few aspects of American history have been more decisive in shaping this nation than the exploration and settling of the Western frontier. For more than a century the West embodied both hardship and opportunity. Yet by 1900 settlement stretched from coast to coast and America's frontier had shifted focus to international prospects. With the Western frontier now recent history, artists had already begun to memorialize it. A. D. M. Cooper's Relics of the Past [figure 26- Cooper, Relics of the Past], for example, pays a trompe l'oeil tribute. Collectables and curios including a buffalo head mount, Native American weapons, and cabinet cards of western heroes celebrate and mourn end of an era. The nostalgia and whimsy of Cooper's Relics embodies the idea of the Old West -- a modern narrative of the historic frontier that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and was perpetuated through art and entertainments such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West.[6] Like Cooper's curios and Buffalo Bill's reenactments, the Old West presented America's best vision of a heroic and controversial past that endures to this day.


1 Henry Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists: Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America (New York: G. P. Putnam and Son, 1870; first published 1867), 424-425. On Tuckerman and his hopes for western art as a national art, see also Nancy K. Anderson, "'Curious Historical Data,' Art History and Western American Art," in Jules Proun et al, Discovered Lands Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Yale University Art Gallery, 1992), 1-2.

2 This wording was used in the 1872 act that set aside the Yellowstone region as the first National Park. The phrase also appears inscribed on the Roosevelt Gate at the Park's north entrance.

3 In 1893, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition. He defined the frontier as "the outer edge of the wave-the meeting point between savagery and civilization." He identified 1890 as the closing of the frontier, and the end of a great historic moment. See Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (Huntington, NY: R. E. Krieger, 1976), 3.

4 When the story was made into a silent film in 1923, the director looked not to history for inspiration, but cast the female lead based on the pioneer woman in Koerner's painting. The Covered Wagon film was a huge success and ran for 56 weeks in New York.

5 Edwin Wildman, "Frederic Remington, the Man," Outing 41 (October 1903): 716.

6 On history and nostalgia see Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (New York: Free Press, 1979), 1-29.



About the authors

Mindy N. Besaw is John S. Bugas Curator, Whitney Museum of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Stephanie Mayer Heydt is Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art, High Museum of Art.


About the exhibition

Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta November 3, 2013 and includes a century of art and artifacts -- 1830 to 1930 -- from the American West. Highlighting the role of visual images in defining the idea of the frontier, the exhibition features more than 250 works of art and artifacts including paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, poster, firearms, and objects from Native American cultures. "Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West" is co-organized by the High Museum of Art and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

(right: Publicity image for Go West! Art of the American Frontier from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Image courtesy of High Museum of Art)

Drawn from the unparalleled collection of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyo., the exhibition features major works of art and important artifacts including paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs, frontier firearms and objects from Native American cultures that showcase the exploration and settlement of the American West. The exhibition features objects presented chronologically and arranged thematically into 10 sections.

Through these objects, the exhibition highlights the ways visual images and stories of explorers and legendary western celebrities such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull continue to inform American identity and character today.

Highlights from the exhibition include:

"The westward expansion of our country is a compelling saga, and this exhibition visually demonstrates the complexity of our nation's expansion through great works of art," said Michael Shapiro, Nancy & Holcombe T. Green Jr. director of the High.

The exhibition begins with early 19th-century representations of the West, complemented by objects made by Native American tribe members who interacted with the earliest frontier settlers. Moving into the early 20th century, "Go West!" demonstrates how these early representations and objects gave way to widespread perceptions of the West. The exhibition also includes a focus gallery that examines the extraordinary union of popular culture and history in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show and the art that the shows inspired.

"Stories of the West not only continue to permeate American culture today, but also influence our contemporary values of opportunity and innovation," said Stephanie Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent curator of American art at the High. "Viewing objects from the American West and paintings inspired by the frontier provides a unique opportunity to see the origins of the American entrepreneurial spirit."

Concurrently with "Go West!" at the High, the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Ga., presents "Today's West! Contemporary Western Art from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West" (Oct. 24, 2013 through April 13, 2014). "Today's West!" immerses visitors in the artistic developments occurring in art of the American West over the past 50 years, bringing the story of the High's exhibition to the present day.


Object labels for the exhibition

Please click here to view object labels for the exhibition.


Checklist for the exhibition

Please click here to view the checklist for the exhibition.


Video and audio guides

The High Museum of Art presents video and audio guides concerning the exhibition on a Web page devoted to the exhibition.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above article was published in Resource Library on December 9, 2013 with permission of the authors and High Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on December 9, 2103.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Marci Tate, Manager of Public Relations, High Museum of Art for her help concerning permission for publishing the essay.

Images associated with the notations in the article are not included here. Thumbnail images may be seen in the checklist. An edited version of the above article was published in the November-December, 2013 issue of American Art Review.

Also see "Go West! Art Of The American Frontier At High Museum Of Art" by Stephen May in Antiques and the Arts Weekly, 2/11/14.

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