The myth of the Far West in American art 1830-1940

La Mythologie de l’Ouest dans l’Art Américain
Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 28 September 2007 to 7 January 2008.
Then Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 13 February to 11 May 2008 and Marseille, Centre de la Vieille Charité, from 6 June to 31 August 2008.

1. George Catlin (1796-1872)
Portrait of the Indian Chief, Wae-ee-ton, c. 1846
Huile sur toile - 81 x 65 cm
Paris, Musée du Quai Branly
Photo : D. Rykner

With American culture ever more present in Europe, for better or worse, it is strange that XIXth C. painting and sculpture in the United States have been so overlooked. Still, it is often the case in their own country as well where Western artists are generally excluded from fine arts museums, except for such rare examples as the Denver Art Museum or the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and can usually be found only in specialized establishments. The Rouen exhibition, which will then travel to Rennes and Marseille, is thus a welcome reminder to the French public that this art should not be dismissed so easily.

The guiding hand behind this retrospective, Laurent Salomé, director of the Rouen museum, became so involved in preparing it that he has become a veritable specialist on the American West. The catalogue, which he supervised and for which he wrote a number of essays, is especially commendable. A particularly interesting text, Les illustrateurs sont-ils des peintres ? (Can illustrators be considered painters ?), explores one of the problems at the heart of this school : its proximity to illustration, seen as a minor art. Frederic Remington, one of the few artists whose name might ring a bell for the French, had to wait until the end of his life before being considered, at last, as a real painter. Laurent Salomé ends his article with a striking image, a painting entitled Madonna of the Prairie (alas, absent from the show) by William H. D. Koerner (1921, Cody, Buffalo Bill Historical Center). A young woman looks at us from her seat atop a covered wagon, used by the pioneers who settled the Far West. The canvas framing her head resembles a halo, transforming it into a figure suggestive of an Italian saint. This painting is renowned in the United States, and has now become a popular icon totally devoid of its original impact as a work of art, a phenomenon that Laurent Salomé wittily calls “le syndrome de la boîte de chocolat” (“the chocolate box syndrome”). And yet someone who sees the image for the first time perceives it as a masterpiece, on an equal-once again in Salomé’s words- with preraphaelite’s most beautiful works. In other words, preconditioning often inhibits us from seeing the true value of a painting. In any case, visitors to the exhibition will discover some real artists, on condition that they come with an open mind. Before starting the visit, we would also like to point out the remarkable essay by Francis Ribemont on French painters of the second half of the XIXth C. and the American West, which reminds us that Jean-François Millet himself was fascinated by it as well as such interesting artists, forgotten here in France, as Jules-Emile Saintin.

2. John Mix Stanley (1814-1872)
Last of Their Race, 1857
Oil on canvas - 109,2 x 152,4 cm
Cody (Wyoming), Buffalo Bill Historical Center

3. George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879)
Captured by the Indians, 1848
Oil on canvas - 65,3 x 76,3 cm
Saint Louis, Art Museum

The first gallery holds a surprise. Not many people know that French museums own works by George Catlin. King Louis-Philippe had in fact met the artist in 1845 during his European stay which lasted several years. A canvas by Karl Girardet, at Versailles, shows this improbable meeting in the Tuileries between the French king and Catlin, accompanied by Indians from Iowa executing a ritual dance in the Salon de la Paix. No wonder Delacroix was so taken by the scene. Louis-Philippe commissioned these works, today hanging in the Musée du Quai Branly, for the historical galleries at Versailles. Catlin’s art retains a touch of naïveté which in part explains its charm. This “primitivism” is, on the other hand, absent from the fascinating double portrait, by John Wesley Jarvis. The dignity of the Indian chief dressed in a modern suit, next to his son (unless this is an allegory of the same person, at two stages of his life), despite the embittered look in his eyes, is particularly striking. One can already read in it the tragic outcome of the American Indians, their defeat, half-hearted assimilation and enclosure on reservations. The same theme is more explicit in the second gallery, with a painting of exceptional quality, in both its execution and iconography, and stands up to the comparison with the finest European paintings of the same period. Entitled Last of their Race (ill. 2), by John Mix Stanley, it shows an Indian family, on the edge of the Pacific outlined against the sunset. It is a splendid allegory on the end of an era. The catalogue tells us that a large number of Stanley’s works were destroyed in three big fires, including the one at the Smithsonian Institute in 1865, perhaps the reason why he is not as famous as Catlin. In the same section, with a very promising title : L’Ouest romantique (The Romantic West), there are two paintings side by side by George Caleb Bingham, one of which Captured by the Indians (ill. 3) could easily be taken from a John Ford film if only we could jump ahead in time.

4. Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874)
The Scalp
Oil on canvas - 76,2 x 63, 5 cm
Denver, Art Museum
Photo : Denver Art Museum

5. Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926)
Looft and Swift Horses are Surer than Lead
Oil on canvas - 76,5 x 122,2 cm
Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum

Indeed, this strange impression of familiarity when visiting the exhibition is obviously due to the countless images of Western movies that come to mind. The cruel Indian, a frequent stereotype in films, is represented here by Alfred Jacob Miller, as a brave holding a scalp leaves a battle scene with a mocking smile on his lips (ill. 4). After the third gallery , to which we will return, the visitor can finally admire the works by Frederic Remington, Charles Schreyvogel, Frank Tenney Johnson and Charles Marion Russell (ill. 5), four painters that could be labelled “Western artists” and of which only the first enjoys some prominence in Europe.
It is easy to understand why certain observers may be bothered by an art form which is very close to illustration, and even to comic strips in the XXth C. The acid colours, the subjects and close focus which are already almost cinematographical trick the viewer’s perception. It reminds us of a similar phenomenon produced when looking at some of Gérôme’s canvases, for example, which evoke a comparison with Roman peplum movies. But an objective eye, eliminating the context, summons up a true work of art. Cinema, after all, did not influence this art which came before, although there was an exchange between the two in the case of those works produced during or after the advent of moviemaking.

6. Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Yosemite Valley, 1866
Oil on canvas - 76,2 x 63, 5 cm
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts
Photo : D. Rykner

Let us return to comment on the landscapes. Only after having experienced it personally can one understand how nature’s grandeur in the American West, so different from anything found in Europe, could have struck these artists so deeply. The section highlights works by Albert Bierstadt (ill. 6) and Thomas Moran, both of the Hudson River School. The influence of J.M.W. Turner is evident in Moran’s landscapes, notably An Indian Paradise (Dallas, Museum of Art), whereas its mystic atmosphere is reminiscent of the German Romantics and notably, Caspar David Friedrich.

7. Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886)
The Choosing of the Arrow, 1848-1849
Bronze - 56,5 x 29,8 x 14 cm
Denver, Art Museum
Photo : Denver Art Museum

8. Frederic Remington (1861-1909)
Bronco Buster, 1895
Bronze - 59,7 x 48,3 cm
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts

9. Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945)
Song of the Eagle that Mates with the Storm, 1916
Oil on canvas - 121,3 x 95,9 cm
Tulsa (Oklahoma), Gilcrease Museum
Photo : D. Rykner

Our review would not be complete without mention of the bronze sculptures included in the exhibition. The Choose of the Arrow (ill. 7) shows an Indian drawing one from his quiver. The version on display, without the bow and arrow, transforms it into a purely classical figure. Remington’s small bronzes (ill. 8) are the exact equivalent of his paintings while lesser known artists offer proud likenesses of Indians, such as the one by Alexander Phimister Proctor. The exhibition ends with a section entitled Le Temps de l’Illustration (The Age of Illustration). Earlier we spoke of Frederic Remington, who was not a unique case since many illustrators were also painters. Even more strangely, most of the images published in books or magazines were reproduced directly from paintings, and not from drawings. Newells Convers Wyeth’s Gunfight, which illustrates the catalogue cover, will certainly draw a laugh or two for its exaggerated and almost childlike traits. But it would be a mistake to underestimate an artist who is also talented enough to produce such an extraordinary work as Song of the Eagle that Mates with the Storm (ill. 9) which reminds us of the Nabis or Symbolist Schools.

In closing with a canvas by Norman Rockwell, a preliminary study of a movie poster for John Ford from 1966, which falls outside the time period of the show, Laurent Salomé concludes this beautiful retrospective with a flourish.

Laurent Salomé (ed.), La mythologie de l’Ouest dans l’art américain 1830-1940, SilvanaEditoriale, 2007, 216 p., 28 €. ISBN : 9788836609246.

Visitor information : Rouen, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Esplanade Marcel-Duchamp 76000 Rouen. Phone : + 33 (0)2 35 71 28 40. Open Wednesday through Monday, from 10 h to 18 h. Admission : 4,5 € ; 6 € including permanent collections

Website of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen

Didier Rykner, vendredi 7 décembre 2007

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