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
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
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
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
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