Mississippi Museum of Art

Jackson, MS




The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality


How did you learn about the American West? Was it larger than life on a silver screen? Or on a flickering television? For some it was on a radio, with a booming voice inviting us to "return to those thrilling days of yesteryear."

Legends loom large about the American West, the lines between myth and reality blurred. But in the time it took the American flag to grow from 13 to 48 stars, four generations of legendary artists painted and sculpted what they saw in a nation that was big enough to hold the ideals upon which it was founded.

The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality presents 120-plus paintings and sculptures from 67 museum, governmental, university and private collections, all carefully selected, for their exquisite artistry and the light they shed on the lives and dreams of the American people from 1840 - 1940.

The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality premiers at the Mississippi Museum of Art, running through June 6, 2000, followed by stops at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago, June 24 - September 17, 2000, and at The Toledo Museum of Art, October 8 - December 31, 2000. The exhibition, which traces approximately 100 years of Western American art, is organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, and provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view a century of American masterpieces all gathered in one place. (right: Charles Deas, A Solitary Indian, Seated on the Edge of a Bold Precipice, 1847, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 26 inches, Collection of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, Los Angeles, California)

From our nation's earliest beginnings, the region west of the Mississippi River was viewed as a mysterious land of great promise, a place to fulfill dreams and ambitions, and a symbol of hope for the future. In the early 1800s, the magnificent drama and spectacular scenery of the western frontier drew many artists to experience its vast offerings. With its infinite prairies, lush forests, great mountains and flowing rivers, the West was a grand stage that challenged the finest of the nations' artistic talent.

The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality features paintings and sculptures depicting the majestic landscape, natural wonders, wildlife, Native Americans, courageous settlers and the taming of an immense continent, while exploring such democratic values as rugged individualism, self-reliance, ingenuity and optimism about a seemingly limitless future. The subjects are as wide ranging as America itself.

This blockbuster exhibition features the work of early explorers/artists Titian Peale and George Catlin, landscape experts Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Thomas Hill, as well as American artists Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, William Robinson Leigh, Georgia O'Keeffe, Maynard Dixon, John Mix Stanley, Marsden Hartley, William Holbrook Beard, James Earl Taylor, Alfred Jacob Miller, Newell Convers Wyeth, Henry Elkins, Joseph Henry Sharp, Robert Henri and Samuel Seymour, among others.

"The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality is the largest and finest exhibition of paintings to ever come to Mississippi," says Mississippi Museum of Art Director R. Andrew Maass. "This superlative exhibition was co-organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and visually documents the dynamic Western expansion period of American history. The rugged individualism and pioneering spirit personified in these works are an integral part of the heritage of the South and America today." (left: Frederic Remington, Ghosts of the Past, c. 1909, oil on canvas,12 x 16 inches, Buffalo Hill Historical Center, Cody Wyoming, Gift of the Coe Foundation)

Maass continues, "This 120-plus piece exhibition assembled from 67 public and private collections, including the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, United States Department of State, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, and Gilcrease Museum, will be an American civics and art history lesson for all ages."

"The entire genre of contemporary Western American art was born from the paintings included in this exhibition," says Maass, "which is unparalleled in the Mississippi Museum of Art's 21-year history. Interestingly, in its juxtaposition of 'myth and reality' as well as 'then and now', the exhibition is uniquely timed to open in Jackson, Mississippi, at the time of the nationally acclaimed Dixie National Rodeo." (left: E. Hall Martin, Mountain Jack and a Wandering Miner, c. 1850, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 72 inches, The Oakland Museum, Gift of Concours d'Antiques, Art Guild)

The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality provides an excellent educational experience for pre-school age children through adults, featuring lessons in American history and the triumph of the American will, bringing home the spirit of an art form that for more than 100 years has been identified with America.


Genesis of the Exhibition

In the summer of 1997, Ann Van Devanter Townsend, President of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions approached distinguished scholar of Western American art Peter H. Hassrick who is now director of the Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West at the University of Oklahoma, to consider curating an exhibition for the year 2002 which would encompass all masters of Western American art.

Enter R. Andrew Maass, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Mississippi. Maass also wished to assemble a "Western" blockbuster exhibition and had approached Hassrick, who in turn suggested that Maass contact Townsend. Having worked together previously, both Maass and Townsend looked forward to the opportunity to work together on development of The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality and to challenge reality by scheduling the national tour's premier for February 12, 2000, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Guest curator Peter Hassrick is acknowledged for his keen and illuminating essay in the exhibition catalogue which establishes the exhibition's important premise, his astute selections, and his knowledge of the "whereabouts" of so many of the key works in the exhibition. Much of Hassrick's catalogue essay has been adapted from a piece he wrote, "L'arte della frontiera americana" that americana at the Palazzo delle Exposizioni in Rome.


History and Impact

The history of the art of the American West is the history of America and westward expansionism. European settlers and their descendants pushed the boundaries of European tamed eastern lands into the natural, untouched western frontier. Propelled by curiosity, wonder, greed and the religious zeal of Manifest Destiny, pioneers surged forward in great waves after the successful expedition of Lewis and Clark, claiming and settling lands further and further to the west. (left: William H. D. Koerner, The Madonna of the Prairie, 1922, oil on canvas, 37 x 28 3/4 inches, Collection of the Buffalo Hill Historical Center, Cody Wyoming)

Artists were no exception. For them, here were new, breathtaking vistas, landscapes never before seen or recorded by Europeans, and noble peoples with proud traditions unknown to Euro-Americans. And, later, artists might seize the chance to make a career and even a living by satisfying wealthy patrons' desires for depiction of the rugged, exotic scenes of this wilderness.

The impact of the works from these artists sends a mixed message still felt today. On the one hand, early artists in the days before photography were the only ones able to reproduce the stunning and magnificent marvels they beheld, bringing them back to the towns and cities for those not as intrepid to see and appreciate. In a very real sense, they function as our eyes in this early period, recording details in the visually immediate way that only fine painting and draftsmanship can.

But on the other hand, some artists, some innocently and some purposefully, altered the reality of their subjects when capturing them on canvas or paper. This could have been an attempt to reconstruct an event that the artist did not personally witness, or it could have been to convey the sense of an historical scene many years after it had occurred. In other cases, it could have been for less admirable reasons, such as altering the elements of a landscape in a painting to create a more pleasing composition, or to romanticize a subject for an art market hungry for the stereotypic "cowboys and Indians." And, more subtly, the unconscious social and cultural biases of the age could have colored the creative output of the artists. (right: Charles M. Russell, Jim Bridger, c. 1925, bronze, 13 x 9 3/4 x 14 3/8 inches, Collection of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas)

The impact of these mixed messages can be gauged by our own mental stereotypes. Through art as well as popular media of paperback novels, serial movies, and television shows, we perhaps have the sense that the cowboy was a stalwart fixture of the 19th century frontier. We believe, perhaps, that the Pony Express system of postal delivery was the only method of long-distance communication for half a century. Or we likely think that Native Americans of the 1800s were wild, uncivilized, uncultured and warlike savages.

Historically, each of these statements is inaccurate, fueled by the myths we consider truth. The age of the cowboy persisted only as long as the cattle drives which became obsolete with the railroad, twenty years; the Pony Express endured only as long as it took railroad and telegraph lines to be established, 19 months; and Native Americans had their own languages, literature, laws, faiths and traditions, and as a group were largely peaceful - only as warlike as any people would be when confronted by invading outsiders intent on displacing and subjugating them. (left: N. C. Wyeth, Gunfight, 1916, oil on canvas, 34 x 25 inches, Collection of the Harmsen Museum of Art, Denver, Colorado, William and Dorothy Harmsen Collection)

There is much to consider and re-consider in our understanding of this rich, expansive land beyond the Mississippi River. The American West: Out of Myth, Into Reality discovers the history, investigates the myths, and explores the impact that these great American masterpieces have had on our lives and our beliefs.


Read more about the Mississippi Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 12/27/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.