Boise Art Museum

Boise, ID



After Lewis and Clark: Explorer Artists in the American West


Organized by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, After Lewis and Clark: Explorer Artists in the American West is part of BAM's series of landscape exhibitions, Now and Then: Visions of America from 1827-1999. The series explores both the historical and contemporary representation of the American landscape. Beginning with Beyond the Mountains: The Contemporary American Landscape, the series now continues with After Lewis and Clark: Explorer Artists and the American West and All that is Glorious Around Us: Paintings from the Hudson River School.

After Lewis and Clark is composed of the journals and paintings of four artists - George Catlin, Nicolas Point, S.J., Thomas Moran and Tony Foster - who explored the Rocky Mountains in the years since Lewis and Clark made their original journey in 1804. Catlin spent time among many Native tribes documenting their customs and culture, Point was a Jesuit priest who lived among the Blackfeet and Flathead Indians, Moran documented the natural wonders found in and around Yellowstone, and contemporary British artist Tony Foster spent three months in 1999 on the Lewis and Clark trail in Idaho and Montana making watercolor diaries of the wilderness that remains today. (left: Thomas Moran, Tower Falls and Sulpher Mountain, 1876, chromolithograph, The Yellowstone National Park and The Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah)


Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue, by Kristin Poole

In 1804 the official charge to Merriwether Lewis and William Clark from President Thomas Jefferson was to document the topography, geology, and ecology of the land between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean for the future benefit and knowledge of the American people. The expedition was referred to as the 'Corps of Discovery' and Jefferson went to great lengths to make sure that expedition leaders had the training necessary to locate and record information in accurate scientific detail. The underlying agenda of the journey was to locate and document an inland water route for the purposes of trade across the continent. While this northwest passage was not revealed, the expedition set the expectation and standard for developing a body of knowledge about this land -- its resources and its people -- that would invigorate many expeditions that were to follow. What we hope to examine with this exhibition and the accompanying catalog is how that particular journey, made nearly two hundred years ago, laid the foundation for future artistic expeditions into the wilderness and how those expeditions help shape the nation's attitude about the American West and its inhabitants.

After Lewis and Clark: Explorer Artists in the American West examines the work of four artists all of whom went West not simply to paint what was there but to quite consciously document the land and its peoples. They assumed that part if not all of their task was to explore, examine and report on the details of their findings. For the three nineteenth century artists included here -- George Catlin, Nicolas Point, S.J., and Thomas Moran -- Jefferson's mandate to Lewis and Clark to serve as the eyes of the nation was still very much alive. For contemporary British artist Tony Foster, the details of location, weather, and site remain significant information and are, in fact, critical elements of his work. These artists were making visual records of a land that was, in the mid-19th century, mysterious and compelling and that in the early 21st century, is still held captive by the mystique of the great American frontier. (left: George Catlin, Buffalo Dance, 1845, lithograph, North American Indian Portfolio)

To examine the history of the American West is a complex, expansive and increasingly sensitive task and not one that can be or will be tackled in depth here. For those who are: interested in learning more there are many scholars who can enlighten and engage you on the subject. The attached bibliography barely scratches the surface of the tremendous body of knowledge associated with this topic and period of time. I offer a disclaimer of sorts because the "history" that follows is incomplete and sketchy. It is though, I hope, as accurate as written history ever is because it is important, even essential, to try to comprehend the environment in which these artists created their works/journals in order to glean the fullest amount from them and to assess how these works contributed to our own perceptions of the West that we inhabit today.

After Lewis and Clark's journey, at the beginning of the 19th century many individuals and organizations, some with specific entrepreneurial interests and others with only vague notions of adventure, set their sights West. Most understood the importance of noting what they saw, encountered or experienced. And because of the precedent of meticulous note-taking, sample collecting and map making set by the Corps of Discovery, many of these exhibitions included artists. By the mid-1800s, artists' impressions of what the West's lands and Indians looked like were serving as critical records that individuals, corporations and the government referenced for information and guidance.

The historic paintings and drawings included in this exhibition reveal much about the culture of the country's native people and about the geography and geology of the land. But these images are also compelling on another level -- within them are clues about the values and culture of the time. George Catlin's lithographs and Nicolas Point's drawings tell of a nation curious and intrigued with the habits and rituals of the West's Indian tribes. Point's drawings also reveal a nation concerned about the lifestyle and religious attitudes of the Indians -- a lifestyle that appeared vastly different from the Western European model that most Eastern white Americans understood and favored. The nation's tacit endorsement of mission work among the Indians not only demonstrates the young country's base in Christianity but also illustrates a deep fear of difference that continues to plague the American West today. Thomas Moran's images expose 19th century attitudes about patriotism, God and nature -- attitudes which shaped our perceptions of the West as a place of majesty and wonder but also served to expedite the development of that very wilderness. In the contemporary work of Tony Foster we see how far the pendulum has swung and that current attitudes about landscape and wilderness are founded on the understanding that all elements of a location -- animate and inanimate, flora and fauna, people and animals, history and future are all interrelated and each links to seeing and comprehending place. (left: Nicolas Point, S.J., Announcement of the Discovery of Buffaloes, c. 1841-47, graphite on paper, #537.7.35.56, Pierre Jean de Smet Papers, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections,Washington State University Libraries; right: Tony Foster, Five Days on the Missouri River - Missouri Breaks at Mile 67 - Looking 290 degrees WNW, 21 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches and 2 1/4 x 21 3/4 inches)


About Kristin Poole

Kristin Poole is Artistic Director of Sun Valley Center for the Arts, residing in Idaho since 1990. She has freelanced as a curator and art historian before joining the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in 1997. Originally from the Midwest, Poole earned a M.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago.


Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Boise Art Museum

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

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

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/27/11

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

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.