The American West is and was an evolving, mythologized, serpentine entity. Its ambiguous definition ranging from a geographical expanse of dust to a dramatized ethos, only serves to heighten America’s fascination with the frontier. The romantic quality we value in the history of the American West has shaped our culture well into the contemporary from movies to novels to lingering feelings of manifest destiny: the tropes of the West remain a valuable cultural commodity. To understand how the imprint of a frontier society continues to shape modernity, the West must first be explored as a series of images that originally served to inform a nineteenth century Eastern American audience. From these images, particularly paintings and widely reproduced engravings of iconic Grand History works, Americans began to cultivate the mythologized, hyper-masculine, romantic ideal of the American frontier. It is vital to see these images not as primary sources or contemporary to their subject matter but as nostalgic recreations imagined largely by East Coast American artists who tentatively traveled west during the nineteenth century but after the frontier had been widely “settled.” Thus, a cultural understanding of an integral aspect of our shared identity and perceptions First Nation peoples is derived largely from a body of master works distributed by publications such as Harpers Weekly and the American Academy of the Arts that were made secondarily and retrospectively to the events that their subject matters often falsely depict.
As a country that has and continues to struggle with the ultimate role of the federal government, it is necessary to first consider the influence of larger institutions both private and governmental in the shaping of the myth of the American West. Further examination often upturns the popularized notion of a fully independent, intrepid people as founders of the West and subsequent creators of its legacy. The American Academy of Fine Arts, created in 1802 by John Tremble, commissioned member artists to create images for mass distribution by mail (Pohl, 124). The Academy was and is run like a stock exchange and thus dealt in popular images and the creation of a canonized artistic “taste” in America. The reliance on monetary income for its shareholders created a massively successful machine of art and image making that emphasized the Grand History painting as envisioned through the lens of the wealthy, industrialized American elite. The Academy of the nineteenth century was responsible for the rise of the landscape painting as the highest form of painting in the U.S., funding artists such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt to create highly romanticized and modified images of the “Virgin Lands” west of the Mississippi. These images served to fuel the fire of manifest destiny and created a false sense of a wilderness laying wait for an Anglo civilizing force to create an Agrarian Utopia. Besides the Academy, artists found funding and fame from many sources. Thomas Moran benefited from a $10,000 federally funded propaganda campaign that paid artists to travel west to paint landscapes. The result was one of the most infamous renderings of the Yellowstone Canyon painted by Moran in 1870. Later, Moran and many other artists found patronage in the booming railroad industry who needed artists to help promote their goal of a trans-continental train route. In 1867, Andrew Melrose, commissioned by the Union Railroad, painted Westward, the Star of Empire Takes its Way. Both Moran and Melrose focus on geology in a Grand Manner style, evoking both triumph and intrigue. The U.S. federal government, another major of funder of propagandistic western renderings, commissioned Albert Bierstadt, a German émigré, to paint Emigrants Crossing the Plain. In his painting Bierstadt depicts Conestoga wagons, dwarfed by absurdly large and Alp-like mountains bravely conquering the wildlands of the west, when reality shows us that pioneers followed a relatively safe, well-traveled, and federally protected overland trail. Bierstadt, like many others, effectively served a wider patron pool with the intention of mass distribution, to entice the American public westward.
Thomas Cole, famous for his crisp, dramatic, and sublime landscapes, was educated as an artist under the wing of Tremble (head of the Academy of Fine Arts) and with the promise of commissions from an aristocratic elite. Painting from the theories of Burke and Kant, who believed man derived his humanity from his ability to perceive infinity, Cole specialized in depicting the sublime, with the human hand removed to emphasize the drama and beauty of nature. Philosophies such as Cole’s and Kant’s gave rise to American transcendentalism, out of which sprang the first images that served to encourage landscape tourism. Landscape tourism, in turn, encouraged immersion in nature as a spiritual and cleansing pursuit and as a counterbalance for the overcrowded and metropolitan Eastern United States. Cole, in his Essay on Scenery describes the spirit of industrialized society as a machine to contrive, not to enjoy, toiling to produce more toil. The observation of the sublimity of nature was not only a reprieve from toil, but a way to cultivate taste and the perception of beauty, which to Cole had a direct connection to good and the improvement of the disposition. Of course, hidden within the observation of nature is also a perception that man is superior in that he can see and experience nature, whilst maintaining an existence outside of it; this thought process and the resulting imagery, thus served as an allegory for American Expansionism. Thomas Cole illustrates the hopeful but ultimately destructive nature of America’s westward gaze in his series of paintings depicting the Course of Empire (1833-1836). From agrarian utopia to a classicized scene of destruction, the cyclical apocalyptic nature of his scenes represents the political climate surrounding aristocracy who perceived their way of life as ending as landowning lost social and financial influence to the upsurge of urbanization around the hubs of industrial revolution. In the act and result of commissioning Cole the aristocracy as a taste-defining class created the perception of pedestalized wilderness. Cole often modified scenes to remove evidence of humans, such as the deletion of the railing at Katerskill falls (Wallach, 79-107). These modified images of grandeur became a precedent for countless artists who created Eastern studio practices catering to wealthy males. These men, as products of the Industrial Revolution, spent their days in offices and looked to the American West (or artists’ saleable depictions of it) for a highly masculinized interpretation of the rough, cowboy life as juxtaposition to the changing role of the males as a result of industrial might and subsequent urbanization (Wallach, 79-107). Winslow Homer, s successful entrepreneurial artist working in the school of Eastern romantic artists catered to the growing class of eastern businessmen who’s lives separated them from a traditional agrarian based aristocracy. As more men worked in offices, a reactionary romanticization of masculinity derived from frontierism and physical labor grew. This changing attitude is illustrated in Homer’s images of men saving maidens, fishing, and embedded in the elements. The sentimentality of the American spirit is expressed in the dramatic brushstrokes and the keenly felt danger and solitude of the subject matter. His paintings were fine-tuned to appeal to the moral and spiritual bankruptcy touted by the elite of the age. Expunged of decorative beauty, they focused purely on force, conveying the powerful undercurrents flowing westward in the nineteenth century (Prown, 264).
A major aspect of romanticized images of the American West was the nature of the depiction of First Nation Peoples from the noble savage of George Catlin’s paintings to the barbaric warrior of Theodore R. Davis “journalistic” engravings. When George Catlin visited the Mandan tribe from 1830 with funding from the federal government, his goal was to depict Native Americans in their natural environment. His visit and subsequent supposed ethnographical accounts of the Mandan tribe along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers came in light of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 mandated under the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Despite the political climate, Catlin’s goal as a supporter of the Removal Act was not to save Natives from their fate, but to venerate a vanishing race, in other words, to preserve them on canvas, not in the flesh. Based on Catlin’s journals edited and changed to fit his distorted paintings, he and his nephew created the “Indian Show” which allowed an eastern audience a vicarious adventure west to ogle the exotic without the threat of the unknown. The paintings featured in the exhibition epitomize the trope of the “noble savage”– heroic, strong, overdressed Natives such as Black Hawk and Osceola stand before an intrepid explorer and praised as worthy adversaries of the American people. In reality, Catlin painted both men while imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida. They were sick, clothed in trousers and waist coats, and were products of a narrative of captivity and assimilation, not the warriors they once were and that Catlin would like you to believe. His painting of Mah-Toh-Pah omits ornaments of his chiefdom and thus removes the real and pervasive threat Natives sometimes posed to Westward expansion. He also adds to the painting ethnographically inaccurate details like the eagle quill headdress, a tipi, a grizzly claw necklace, fringe, and moccasins, none of which was worn by the Mandan tribe. Thus, Catlin is one of the first to create a mythology around Native iconography that would be pervasive in depictions of natives through to western art in the 21st century. His nostalgic comparison and imagining of Mah-To-Pah as a Roman gladiator also contributes to the ongoing placement of Natives on a non-threatening timeline of the past (Hight, 155).
For a more accurate sense of the lives of Natives in the 19th century scholars look to ledger art created by reservation and captured Natives who had access to accountants’ ledger books. The medium was popularized as access to hides that traditionally told stories of battle conquests and Native history diminished and for some, vanished. Cohoe, a Plains Indian, created ledger art during his imprisonment at Fort Marion. Using crayons and colored pencil he drew scenes that starkly contrasted the noble savage. His narratives included objects of Anglo incursion such as alcohol bottles and rifles, objects left out of western depictions in an effort to confine Natives to a safe and nostalgic past. In 1870, Cohoe drew Fort Marion Prisoners Dance for Tourists. At the same time, Wo-haw, another prisoner drew Classroom at Fort Marion, depicting former warriors and chiefs with shorn hair and suits gathered round a blackboard with a Native father spirit observing the scene, hovering over the desk, a ghost from the past (Pohl, 236-250)
Equally appalling to Catlin’s Black Hawk portrait but opposite in its intention was Theodore R. Davis’ depiction of Native Americans in his etchings for Harper’s Weekly. With the Civil War over, the army turned its attention to the last bastions of Native resistance in the West. Artists recorded the ensuing battles in sketches as photographic technology excluded movement from its repertoire. Quick sketches made into woodcut engravings for widespread distribution at the newspapers headquarters presented an opportunity to modify the portrayal of a newsworthy scene. Davis’ depiction of the Washita River Massacre is a deeply distressing example of distortion of an event under the pretense of on-scene accuracy, to justify a truly horrific moment in the Indian Wars. After the defeat of Chief Black Kettle, George Armstrong Custer’s men moved on to the undefended village killing all males over eight years old as well as many women and children. They also destroyed food storage and 875 ponies, leaving those who were not killed to starve to death. That is the historically accurate account of the event, Davis however modified the scene with impunity. Claiming to have been there (he had been back East for over a year), Davis sketched a scene of Custer’s Indian Scouts celebrating the victory over Black Kettle, grossly exaggerating the contrast between native ritual and dress with those of the cool, collected white men. His second sketch shows Custer’s men “shooting down worthless horses.” Again the juxtaposition is clear – the wild horses stand in as an allegory for the fierce savage in contrast with the calm soldiers who shoot them. The equating of Native to animal was often used, though usually equated to the buffalo. One army officer is recorded as saying, “kill every buffalo you can, every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” (Pohl, 237).
As historians, we tend to see the world in words, in arguments, in indirect actions we observe through the lens of time or feminism or post-colonial manifestations of political and social identities. However thorough these examinations of the past may be they often fall short of asking how the moment is perceived, acknowledged, disseminated, and experienced by the wider public and in that we fail to examine the integral tool of dissemination in the form of images. A well-framed photograph of Indian Wars or a modified landscape of California can vastly distort perceptions of reality and serve as catalyst for actions set into motion by vagaries and slights of publishers and artists. American images of the West serve us retrospectively as tools that shape our perception, inform our thinking, and engage scholarly dialogue on the true nature of the American West as we compare and contrast a contemporary historicized perception versus that of a nineteenth century public seduced by the likes of Remington of Cole. By examining the inherent distortions observed in examples of art created in the nineteenth century, we begin to slowly uncover the biases, stereotypes, and political and economic motivators that shaped the era and informed an audience. Specifically, we gain insight to the wealthy class as consumers as well as creators of cultural mores and styles that trickled down to the massive cultural undercurrent that affected large swaths of the population who’s legacy can be seen in the ongoing mytholigization and cultural underpinnings of the American identity and experience to this day.
Milner, Clyde A. II, Anne M. Butler, David Rich Lewis. Major Problems in the History of the American West. Boston: 1997.
Doezema, Marianne and Elizabeth Milroy. Reading American Art. Dexter: 1998.
Hight, Kathryn S. “Doomed to Perish:George Catlin’s Depictions of the Mandan.” Reading American Art. Dexter: 1998.
Prown, Jules D. “Winslow Homer in His Art.” Reading American Art. Dexter: 1998.
Wallach, Allan. “Thomas Cole and the Aristocracy.” Reading American Art. Dexter: 1998.
Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. Third Edition. New York: 2012.