Expansion and Development (1850s–1910s)

Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, Oil on canvas, ca. 1870 (1966.1) Thomas Moran, Cliffs of Green River, Oil on canvas, 1874 (1975.28) Worthington Whittredge, On the Cache La Poudre River, Colorado, Oil on canvas, 1876 (1975.4) William Henry Jackson, Chipeta Falls–Black Cañon of the Gunnison, Albumen silver print, 1883 (P1971.94.23)

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David F. Barry, Sitting Bull, Collodion-chloride print, ca. 1886 (P1967.466) Frederic Remington, The Fall of the Cowboy, Oil on canvas, 1895 (1961.230) Frederic Remington, The Cheyenne, Bronze, Roman Bronze Works, cast #6, 1901, cast 1904, Left proper side view (1997.140) Charles M. Russell, The Medicine Man, Oil on canvas, 1908 (1961.171)Charles M. Russell, [Wolf], Painted wax, plaster, iron, and hemp, 1915, View 1 (1961.52)

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Life and Lore of the West

Even the earliest artists in the West could not resist the temptation to use paintings to tell dramatic stories about their encounters with native peoples and the vast, strange landscape of mountains and plains. The succeeding generation of American artists, many of whom were trained abroad, quickly advanced the popular myths of the Wild West in their paintings. Artists Albert Bierstadt and Worthington Whittredge studied in Düsseldorf, Germany, thoroughly absorbed the prevalent Euopean preference for highly theatrical scenes. These artists, too, made expeditions west, but only Whittredge overcame the tendency toward high drama in his western landscapes. Bierstadt emerged as the greatest showman among American landscape painters of the day, with grand, dramatic canvases depicting scenes in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada.

These storytelling painters shaped artists’ views of the West for years to come. The qualities that we admire in the paintings of Bierstadt—the high drama and that golden light—became mainstays of western painting and are in evidence in the works of later artists like Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. At the close of the nineteenth century, Remington and Russell cemented the idea of the Wild West in the popular imagination, even though the truth behind the myth had all but disappeared. Through their work they underscored the poignancy of the frontier’s passing.

A New Way of Seeing

From its inception, photography’s unparalleled immediacy and detail instantly made it the preferred format for portraiture. By the 1850s it was possible to make an unlimited number of paper prints from a negative, and the use of the medium quickly expanded beyond the studio to chronicle the nation’s development and its native peoples.

As in any field, certain practitioners rose to the top, valued for their technical mastery, insight, and courage in pushing the limits. The best photographers have long taken their cues about composition and lighting from painting. Adding photographic detail to that mix, leading nineteenth-century practitioners delivered a compelling authenticity, which remains appealing even in its monotones.


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