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Indepth Arts News:

"Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum"
2001-10-02 until 2001-12-16
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
San Marino, CA, USA

Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum features sixty-four paintings and sculptures from the 1820s through the 1940s by American artists fascinated with Indian and Hispanic cultures and the majestic landscapes of the western territories. These artworks, which celebrate the landscape and pay tribute to Native Americans and their cultures, served to establish American art and its subject matter as new and exciting to audiences worldwide.

First explorers and trappers, then settlers and immigrants were drawn to the lands and opportunities for a new life in the American West, said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Artists were quick to discover new and exciting subjects in the vast wilderness, mountains and prairies, as well as in the native and Hispanic peoples who lived beyond the Mississippi River.

Lure of the West: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, touring the nation through 2002. The Principal Financial Group® is a proud partner in presenting these treasures to the American people. Treasures to Go, launched in January 2000, is perhaps the most extensive art tour ever. Its goal is to stimulate interest in American art among new audiences as well as art lovers by touring the nation's foremost collection to communities across the country.

This exhibition encompasses more than a century of art, moving from the excitement of exploration to the establishment of a national mythology about the West. The Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846 just as interest in western territories and peoples was expanding, played an active role in this story. The Smithsonian sent scientists and artists on various government expeditions to advise on land-use policies and gather art and artifacts into its rapidly burgeoning collections.

The earliest work in the exhibition is a group portrait of five Pawnees by Charles Bird King, made in the artist's Washington, D.C., studio in 1821, when the delegation of Indians traveled east to negotiate territory rights on behalf of their tribe. Wearing wampum ornaments, red face paint, bead necklaces, and fur robes, the figures appear as noble representatives of a sovereign nation; one proudly wears a peace medal depicting President James Monroe.

Eighteen portraits of Native Americans and scenes of Plains Indian life by George Catlin form the exhibition's centerpiece. In the early 1830s the artist followed the path of explorers Lewis and Clark, traveling up the Missouri River into the Dakota Territories. These works are part of Catlin's famous Indian Gallery of approximately 500 paintings that he exhibited throughout the eastern United States and in the capitals of Europe, inspiring a wave of interest in the American frontier and Indian cultures.

John Mix Stanley chronicled Indian customs and people in 150 paintings that he placed on deposit at the Smithsonian in 1851, hoping they would be purchased by the United States government. The three works in the exhibition were among the few paintings that were not in the Smithsonian Castle Building when it went up in flames in 1865, destroying most of Stanley's lifework.

Several works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made after tribal groups were largely confined to reservations, reveal the regret and nostalgia felt by many American artists. A group of bronze-relief medallions by Olin Warner (1891) capture in profile tribal leaders who had fought bravely for their people. Three paintings by Joseph Henry Sharp show Indians reviving old ceremonies and maintaining craft traditions, which were soon to become a new lure of the West for a thriving tourist industry. Eanger Irving Couse's life-sized Elk-Foot of the Taos Tribe (1909) presents a wise leader seemingly resigned to his fate. Walter Ufer's Callers (about 1926) imparts a domestic tranquility to Indian life.

A small marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, Old Arrow Maker (modeled 1866, carved 1872), may evoke the artist's own childhood experiences. Born to an African American father and a Chippewa mother, Lewis was one of America's first woman sculptors, establishing a career in Italy in the neoclassical tradition, but selecting subjects that had a personal resonance.

Artists' fascination with the West mirrored the nation's determination to settle the American continent coast to coast. Waves of miners, settlers and soldiers pressed westward in a movement called Manifest Destiny—a phrase meant to imply that Europeans were destined by God to spread their religion and way of life—and in this process of nation-building, they transformed the lands and devastated native cultures.

Several artworks show the ambitious enterprise that inspired so many to move west. Charles Christian Nahl and August Wenderoth followed the rush to California when gold was discovered there in 1848. Unsuccessful at mining, they turned to recording the life of the Forty-Niners in paintings such as Miners in the Sierras (1851–52), which shows men at a placer mine recovering gold from a riverbed. Emanuel Leutze borrowed a famous phrase that embodied the concept of Manifest Destiny—Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way—for his 1861 oil study for a mural in the United States Capitol, showing a wagon train of settlers journeying to the Golden Gate near San Francisco.

The exhibition includes Albert Bierstadt's 10-foot-wide masterpiece, Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868), showing deer drinking at a clear lake rimmed by towering peaks. Two smaller landscapes by the artist depict a sunrise view in California and a mountain range in Alaska, revealing how soon artists pursued even the farthest reaches of the new frontier.

Thomas Moran's landscapes in the exhibition include views of the Upper Colorado River in Wyoming Territory, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Kanab Canyon in Utah. Two bronze sculptures by Edward Kemeys, one a small bear and the other a buffalo attacked by a wolf, depict animals native to the western regions.

Sharp, Couse, Ufer, and several other artists in the exhibition were part of the Taos School, begun informally when East Coast artists visited the Southwest in the 1890s. Over three decades, it became a thriving year-round artists' colony in Taos, N.M. Most had studied in European academies; all had mastered the use of strong color, bright light, and bold compositions. They portrayed not only Indian subjects but also dramatic landscapes and age-old Hispanic cultures of the Southwest, an antidote to urban industry and the sophistication of eastern cities in the Gilded Age.

One Taos artist, Victor Higgins, spoke of New Mexico's primitive appeal and said the very air of Taos country drives caution from man's brain. His Mountain Forms #2 (about 1925–27) presents a religious procession moving through a monumental landscape that presses against a cosmic sky. E. Martin Hennings, in Riders at Sunset (1935–45), places two robed figures on horseback within what he considered his true subjects—sage, mountain, and sky.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has maintained a focus on the West by collecting artworks about the western landscape tradition and Indian and Hispanic peoples, as well as organizing landmark exhibitions and publishing new research about these essential aspects of this cultural heritage. Many key gifts to the collection over several decades reflect the donors' recognition of these significant programs.

E. Martin Hennings
Riders at Sunset
30 x 36 1/8 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Gift of Arvin Gottlieb

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