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Painters Of The Plains

June 2024
5min read

The Middle West has put its stamp on many artists’ work

It is a big country, sprawling all the way from the Alleghenies to the Rockies, and it puts its mark on the people who live in it. Its climate tends to be uncompromising— baking heat in the summer, hostile cold in the winter—and it has never done anything by halves. Where it had forests, they rolled for hundreds of miles, great stands of hardwood, green twilight under their branches; its open prairies were like the sea itself, rolling west in an unbroken treeless groundswell.

When white men came to break this wilderness for settlement it smote them with Indian warriors, plagued them with malaria, put its enormous rivers in periodic destructive floods; then, as they persevered, it enriched them beyond their hopes, with wealth from its forests and its minerals and its fertile soil.

So the American Middle West has from the beginning been a strong rich area, a land of wonder and terror that has come to seem commonplace only because so many men have lived there so long. And from the beginning it has been a challenge to the artist, putting its own stamp on his attempt to record the look and the sweep and the feel of it.

First, the Indian: a man who had intelligently adapted himself to his physical world, making a balanced use of all of its gifts. The Indian never had any particular wish to conquer nature; he wanted simply to exist in it. He understood how to work out a natural interplay between himself and the forces of his physical environment, and as a result he created a well-integrated culture.

The Indian’s ways of self expression—both his artistic achievements and his religious practices—were completely tied in with his everyday life and with his wish to make himself comfortable and in harmony with his physical surroundings. He wanted to express himself well in all things: in the making and decorating of his dwelling, his clothing, his food, his vessels and his weapons, and most especially in the articles which he made for ceremonial use.

So he produced a highly decorative art which was symbolic, mystic and religious—for it was closely connected with prayer. The deeply significant symbols and painted and quilled designs of the early Plains Indians, for instance, were made with vast care. They were not only expressions of the artistic impulse; if properly done they were talismans that would produce abundant buffalo herds.

The first white artists who undertook to depict the Middle West came with the exploring parties and government expeditions in the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century. Unlike the native artists, these men recorded just what they saw, as they saw it; for their job was to make authentic reports on the infinitely varied aspects of this great new country. The men who had sent them out wanted to know what the land looked like, how its plants grew and its animals behaved, how its rivers ran and where its mountains rolled.

For the East wanted to know all it could learn about the great West. Artists who did not sign onto expeditions free-lanced on their own, going as far west as they could, often joining with traders and trappers. Many of these artists came from Europe, with a background of strict academic training in England, Germany, Austria or France. They painted in the warmth of Nineteen Century romanticism, but their job was primarily that of reporters.

Yet they were basically artists after all; and some of them added that strength of individuality and character that is the substance of art, producing work that has found a rich place in the story of Nineteenth Century painting.

So while Karl Bodmer, for instance, was recording life along the wide Missouri in 1833, many of his pictures carried a quality that lifted them above strict illustration—and Bodmer the artist emerges. His work is factual, but it has a sympathetic feel of the country. Bodmer was responding to the influences of his environment.

Others did the same, finding a strong response to their creative compulsions. Examples are numerous: Alfred Jacob Miller, in his paintings of Rocky Mountain scenery and Indians of the Plains; John Mix Stanley, in his landscapes and studies of Indian life on the early railroad surveys; George Catlin, the true artistic value of whose great record of the Western Indian has only recently been fully recognized; and Captain Seth Eastman, in valuable records made during his early service on the Upper Mississippi.

Then the situation changed. In the later 1800’s much of the Middle West was fully peopled. Yet the farther frontier country still beckoned—its gold, its cattle, its pioneering railway lines, its Indian wars, and its wild romantic vastness—and a glamour attached itself to it all and beckoned to the painters and recorders. Eastern magazines such as Harper’s and Leslie’s sent their illustrators west, and their illustrations bear the mark of men who felt that they were called on to report a strange and exciting country. As historical records, these pictures are rich and abundant, although as works of art they often leave much to be desired.

Still, exceptional work does now and then appear—product of the times and the environment, like all the rest, but nevertheless expressing deeply the impact of the environment upon the artist. Ranney, Tait, Russell, Remington and Schreyvogel caught the spirit as well as the factual detail of what they painted. Late in the century the romance of the cowboy-cattle theme captivated the imagination, and new artists appeared, including Frank Tenney Johnson and William R. Leigh.

Meanwhile, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, another group of painters moved west, drawn not by the cowboys and Indians and hell-roaring mine camp characters but by the sheer dramatic quality of the Western landscape. These painters—Bierstadt, Moran, Hill, Keith and others—were stirred by the vastness, depth, height and remoteness of the Western scene. They caught its changing moods in the same tradition that led other romantic landscape painters—Cole, lnness, Wyant and Durand—to interpret the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains a few years earlier.

The effect of this growing romanticism on Western paintings appeared in the representation of subjects. Discarding the original factual approach, some painters—notably George de Forest Brush—represented the Indian, not as he really was, but according to a predetermined conception. The Indian became the romantic child of nature, idealized to fit a poetic or romantic pattern. Accurate representations of costumes, habits and everyday life became relatively unimportant. The philosophical aspects came first.

Again the situation changed; the Middle West has never been static. After the First World War the landscape and genre aspects of America had little interest for the younger artists. Many of them turned toward Paris and the Continent for study and inspiration. American artistic thought took on an international tinge, and the local scene became secondary. This was especially true in the Middle West—until that widely publicized triumvirate, Curry, Wood and Benton, struck out for the true roots of American life.

They found what they were looking for right at home—in the Main Streets, on the farms, in harvest scenes, at church suppers, and so on, in their native states of Kansas, Iowa and Missouri. Other artists followed their lead. In the Thirties and early Forties, American regionalism flourished. The homely, familiar American farm came into its own on canvas.

But these regionalists were not making reports for surveys or providing illustrations for Eastern magazines, nor were they looking for romance in a by-gone or wholly imaginary era. Like the Nineteenth Century artists, they were realists; but their realism had a strong personal approach. The subject was only their starting point. Color, action and background were composed into a unified personal statement of the scene that was bold and direct, often freely and impressionistically painted—the same Western environment that influenced Bodmer, Stanley, Moran and Russell, subject now to a new age and thought.

The regionalist movement, of course, did not affect all artists. Counter-movements of expressionism and non-objectivity had become well rooted in America during the 1920’s. At mid-century, American artists have turned away from regionalism. The physical environment has become secondary—even non-existent—to a world if inner ideas and personal emotions that is uppermost in modern painting.

Today the influence of environment in the middle part of this country lies not in its appearance but in its vastness, openness, and even—in an age of speedy air travel—in its distance from the east and west coasts. All over this area there are active centers where independent, creative work is going forward. In these separate areas it is possible that freshness, individuality and resourcefulness can be maintained in a period when art is becoming typed and design is becoming highly standardized.

For in the final analysis, the impact of the environment on the artist is largely mental. Increasingly, man ceases to be confined by his physical surroundings. The tremendous Middle West is still greater than the men who live in it and try to interpret it, but it challenges them now in a different way.


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