Collecting guide: the artists who gave us our vision of the American West
A small group of 19th-century forerunners helped to shape a national identity for the United States that still resonates today
For much of the 19th century the United States government set its sights on territories across the western half of the continent, sending survey teams, scientific expeditions and troops into the American frontier. Joining these early westward travellers was a generation of enterprising explorer-artists, who sketched the region’s unspoiled scenery and documented the people who lived there, introducing an eager public back east to what lay in the West. Simultaneously in the second half of the 19th century, stories and images from the distant, and still relatively wild, American West captivated the public’s imagination. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855 had much the same effect that James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans engendered in the previous generation.
‘American art has almost always contained a not-so-hidden meditation on the relation between the national landscape and the national past, both of which are simultaneously discovered and invented in the act of being recorded,’ write the authors of the 1992 Yale University Press publication Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (1992). The artists in this guide are among those who shaped those visions.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
The German-born American artist Bierstadt honed his technical skills studying abroad, painting alpine landscapes while on a sketching tour through Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the 1850s, before returning to his native US.
In the spring of 1858, he contributed a painting of Lake Lucerne and the Swiss Alps to the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in New York, gaining instant critical attention — and an honorary membership into the academy just a few weeks later. The next year he made his first trip to the West, joining government surveyor Frederick W. Lander's team on a trip across the American Prairie to the Rocky Mountains.
The sketches and photographs he brought back to his New York studio allowed him to create several technically impressive landscapes over the next few years, including The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863). ‘Publicly exhibited to great acclaim, this monumental painting established Bierstadt as a key competitor of the pre-eminent landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church,’ according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which now owns the work.
Bierstadt took numerous subsequent trips through the West, including to the Pacific Coast with the writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, where he made studies of the Yosemite Valley — arguably the locale for which he is best known.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
Although Remington enrolled at the School of Fine Arts at Yale University as a young man, he was more drawn to sports than still-lifes, and left the school after his father’s death in 1880 (he was given an honorary degree by Yale in 1900). A summer trip to the Montana Territory the following year sparked the artist’s lifelong interest in the West.
His first professional drawing, of a Wyoming cowboy, was published by the magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1882, and launched Remington’s early career as the foremost illustrator of the region. He became known for his black-and-white drawings as ‘a chronicler par excellence of the old American West’, according to Thayer Tolles, the curator of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Remington was already an established artist-correspondent when he decided to try his hand at sculpting, initially inspired by the artist Frederick Ruckstuhl. His first effort, The Broncho Buster (modelled in 1895), would secure his reputation as an American master in the medium. The dynamic depiction of a cowboy perched on a bucking horse was hugely popular, with hundreds of casts of the work made by two separate foundries in the following decades, including one presented to his long-time admirer, Theodore Roosevelt. Continuing to sculpt, draw and paint, and celebrated for his pioneering nocturnes, Remington thrillingly captured the characters and activity of Western life.
Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-74)
Miller studied painting and drawing in France and Italy before opening his first studio in Baltimore in 1834. He moved to New Orleans a few years later, where he met Scottish businessman and adventurer Sir William Drummond Stewart. Miller accompanied Stewart on his 1837 journey to the annual fur trading event known as the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous in what is now Wyoming.
The sketches and paintings of Indigenous people and landscapes he made during this trip would be the basis for the romanticised paintings Miller would create throughout his career. Celebrated for the intricacy of his work on paper, Miller was notably commissioned to create a series of 200 watercolours by Baltimore businessman William Thompson Walters, whose collection would eventually form the basis of the Walters Art Museum.
Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Thomas Moran’s enduring interest in the English painter J.M.W. Turner might have been sparked while working in the studio of his brother Edward Moran, a marine artist, according to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. There he met James Hamilton, a landscape painter who was celebrated as an ‘American Turner’. Moran travelled to England with his brother in 1861 to study Turner’s work in person at the National Gallery in London, and he was indelibly influenced by the British artist’s depiction of light and use of watercolour.
The turning point of Moran’s career came when he joined Ferdinand Hayden’s 1871 geological expedition to Yellowstone in Wyoming. The watercolours that resulted from this trip were essential to the establishment of Yellowstone as the nation’s first National Park. Equally, Moran’s illustrations of the dramatic landscape for the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly are credited with helping to raise public appreciation of the region’s beauty. Gaining in popularity, his monumental canvas of the The Grand Canyon was completed the following year, and was soon purchased by the government for $10,000 to hang in the Capitol.
Moran continued to travel and paint in the decades that followed, capturing more of the American West, including the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, as well as the canyon lands of Arizona and New Mexico. When he died in Santa Barbara, California, in 1926, he was remembered as the ‘Dean of American Landscape Painters’.
Carl Rungius (1869-1959)
Born in Germany, Carl Rungius was inspired by his childhood passions surrounding taxidermy, hunting, and the arts. Despite his father’s distaste in his artistic pursuits, Rungius studied at the Berlin Art Academy where he spent most of his time studying and sketching the animals at the zoo.
After travelling to Wyoming for a hunting trip, he became entranced with the land and grazing animals in which he could more effectively study, leading to his immigration. He was frequently commissioned by publications and campaigns to illustrate wildlife. His passion for hunting and observation helped him create a keen eye for conveying landscapes and animals in their natural environments.
George Catlin (1796-1872)
As a nine-year-old boy, George Catlin had a chance encounter in the woods of New York that would shape his life as an artist. According to Smithsonian Magazine writer Bruce Watson, he met an Oneida man, who raised a hand in friendship towards the terrified boy. After giving up a law career to become a portrait artist, he met a delegation of Plains Indians in Philadelphia in 1828 and decided to dedicate himself to one great artistic ambition: visiting and recording the people and cultures of every Native American nation in North America.
His efforts started in earnest in 1830, when he joined a diplomatic expedition led by Missouri Territory governor William Clark up the Mississippi River into Native American lands. His most fruitful artistic excursions took place between 1832-1836. During his travels Catlin visited a vast range of peoples and tribes including the Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet tribes in the north, to the Pawnee, Omaha, and Ponca in the south.
Catlin was firmly opposed to the 1830 Indian Removal Act, seeing the destruction this would cause to Indigenous lives, and devoted himself ‘to the production of a literal and graphic delineation of the living manners, customs, and character of an interesting race of people, who are rapidly passing away from the face of the earth’, he later wrote.
Setting up a base in St Louis, Catlin created more than 500 portraits, genre scenes and landscapes featuring Native American people, some of which he executed directly in the field during his travels. Notably, Catlin was among the first visual ethnographers of many Native customs and events, such as the buffalo hunt. He then began exhibiting what he called his Indian Gallery on the East Coast and Europe, hoping that it would be acquired by the US government. Though he sold the collection to the industrialist Joseph Harrison in 1852, Catlin’s wish was posthumously realised when it was later donated to the Smithsonian by Harrison’s widow.
John Mix Stanley (1814-72)
Apprenticed to a carriage-maker at the age of 12, where he learned to paint signs and decorate panels, Stanley moved to Detroit in his 20s and became an itinerant portrait and sign painter, travelling around cities such as Chicago, Baltimore and Philadelphia. It was during a stop at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, in 1839 that he first painted the subjects for which he would become famous: portraits of Native Americans and frontier landscapes.
A few years later he set up a studio in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, visiting several Native American tribes in the area and joining councils between their leaders and government officials. In 1846 Stanley exhibited a group of 85 paintings created during this time in Cincinnati and Louisville. When war with Mexico broke out the same year, he returned West, joining US Army General Stephen Kearny’s expedition to be a topographical draughtsman through the northern territories of Mexico. He then journeyed north to paint Native American portraits and landscapes in the Pacific Northwest. As a result of these extensive travels, John Mix Stanley ranks among the earliest and most celebrated chroniclers of the American West through his powerful images of Native American culture.
When he returned to the East Coast following his last trip in 1853, Stanley organised exhibitions of his collection of Native American portraits in several cities, most prominently at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Today’s Stanley’s surviving work remains exceedingly rare due to consecutive fires at both the Smithsonian and his Detroit studio in 1865, which destroyed the majority of his output.
Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1861-1944)
Born in Utah, Cyrus Edwin Dallin was recognized at a young age for his artistic talent. He perused his passion for sculpture by moving to Boston to study under Truman H. Bartlett, later winning a city-sponsored competition for sculpting a monument to Paul Revere.
Dallin became devoted to sculpting large-scale public tributes to America’s Indigenous peoples, commemorating their resilience to discrimination. This also paralleled his passion for advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples by educating and even working in Massachusetts in an organization to protect the land and uplift Native art.
Henry Farny (1847-1916)
Farny showed an interest in drawing as a boy, when he would sketch a tribe of Seneca Indians that lived near his family’s home in Pennsylvania. The family later moved to Cincinnati, where Farny drew illustrations for books and magazines, including a view of the city published in Harper’s Weekly when he was just 18.
With encouragement from Albert Bierstadt, Farny ventured up the Missouri River in 1881, near what is today North Dakota, making sketches and collecting materials for later works. He would make regular trips out West for the next decade, including through Montana and Oklahoma, returning to his studio in Cincinnati to create sympathetic portraits and scenes of a way of life that was rapidly being erased. ‘The nation owes you a great debt,’ Theodore Roosevelt is known to have said to the artist, who he had met during his travels in the West. ‘It does not realise it now, but it will some day. You are preserving for future generations phases of American history that are rapidly passing away.’