Creating the American West title

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the world seemed to be moving toward a future full of possibility, as novel methods of travel and communication transformed everyday life. Avant-garde (new and experimental) artworks from Europe challenged traditional artistic practice. Some of the unconventional techniques artists employed to express the world around them included using bold colors and patterns, radically simplifying or abstracting shapes, flattening three-dimensional forms, and tilting perspectives. The American West maintained its prominence as a source of inspiration for those seeking new forms of visual representation. Its dramatic landscapes and intense light lent themselves to modern styles, and a younger generation of artists saw new relevance in the centuries-old design motifs of Indigenous art. During a tumultuous era that witnessed technological innovation as well as the tragedies of World War I and the Great Depression, depictions of the West preserved key components of American myth and history. 

Frank Mechau (American, 1904–1946)
Rodeo-Pickup Man, ca. 1930
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Anne Evans, 1935.9

Frank Mechau was one of many American artists who trained abroad during the early 1900s, but ultimately turned their attention to the specificities of America’s diverse geographic regions and cultures. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, they painted depictions of everyday life using the modern techniques then in style, such as the flattening of space and simplification of forms seen here. These artists, most famously Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood, became known as the country’s foremost regionalists, or painters of the American scene.

Kenneth Miller Adams (American, 1897–1966)
Reapers (Harvest), 1946
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift from Dr. George C. Peck and Catherine M. Peck, 2013.466

Kenneth Miller Adams studied in France and Italy before moving to Taos in 1924, where he became interested in the local Spanish American population. Here, he surrounds the strong bodies of two female workers with golden harvest tones. The viewer’s eye travels around the composition—from the upright woman in the green dress, through her sheaf of wheat, and down the stooping woman’s back and arm. This movement imitates the endless motion of these women’s exhausting labor.

William Herbert Dunton (American, 1878–1936)
Black Bears, ca. 1927
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.101

Although paintings of cowboys on horseback by William Herbert Dunton are featured elsewhere in this exhibition, his favorite subject was the black bear. In this work, Dunton depicts a mother bear and her cubs ambling through a densely forested landscape. Dunton emphasizes the bears’ textured fur, allowing their mass and movement to take center stage, leading the eye into the depths of the landscape.

William Penhallow Henderson (American, 1877–1943)
Little Sister (The Chaperone), ca. 1916
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Mrs. Edgar Rossin, 1974.16

William Penhallow Henderson worked as a painter, muralist, architect, arts educator, and furniture maker. After moving to Taos from Chicago in 1916, he became interested in Hispanic and Indigenous culture. The carved patterns of the lowboy were inspired by Spanish floral motifs and geometric Puebloan designs, and Henderson carefully textured the surface with an adze (small ax). The painting shows a Hispanic man and two women enjoying an evening walk. Henderson grabs our attention with the rich red of the closest woman’s coat and glove and frames the group with the vibrant green of a tree and a barbed wire fence.

William Penhallow Henderson (American, 1877–1943)
Lowboy, 1929
Hand-carved and adzed pine
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2013.89

Homer Boss (American, 1882–1956)
Koh-tseh (Yellow Buffalo), 1931
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.1210

Nicolai Fechin (American, born in Russia, 1881–1955)
Mexican Cowboy, 1935
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.463

Randall Davey (American, 1887–1964)
Western Man, 1920
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.1197

Randall Davey’s interest in this Hispanic man may have been inspired by his teacher Robert Henri’s many sympathetic portraits of diverse men and women from around the country. The black backdrop focuses our attention on the sitter, who is painted with dignity, his kerchief tucked into his waistcoat and hat in hand. Davey first visited New Mexico in 1919 with his friend John Sloan, whose work is also on display here.

Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929)
Tom Po Qui (Water of Antelope Lake/Indian Girl/Ramoncita), 1914
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.461

A famed painter and arts educator based in New York City, Robert Henri traveled to the American West and made portraits of the people he met. Here, with his characteristic quick, gestural brushstrokes, he depicts the colorful clothing and forthright gaze of Tom Po Qui, a Tewa artist. He pays particular attention to the glint of light off her silver squash blossom necklace, a style characteristic to Indigenous peoples of the Southwest. Henri played an important role in making Santa Fe an art center in the first half of the 20th century by encouraging his wide network of fellow artists to come to the area and by helping to create less restrictive exhibition methods in galleries and museums than those found in the East.

Raymond Jonson (American, 1891–1982)
Pueblo Series, Acoma, 1927
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.441

When Raymond Jonson first visited New Mexico in 1922, he found the landscape and light well suited to his increasingly abstract approach. To create an intensified vision of storms rolling through mesas, Jonson uses saturated hues and contrasting light. Further, he combines sharp-edged lines with soft, regular brushstrokes, and balances the geometric forms of mesas and Acoma Pueblo (the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America) with the rounded swells of green hills and low clouds.

Jozef G. Bakos (American, 1891–1977)
Rocks in the Clearing, 1918–19
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2011.277

Marsden Hartley (American, 1877–1943)
New Mexico Recollection #6, 1922
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.455

Marsden Hartley traveled to New Mexico for the first and only time in 1918. He found the Southwest both inspiring and challenging, writing that “there is nothing in conventional esthetics that will express the red deposits, the mesas, and the Canyon of the Rio Grande.” Even after moving away, though, he continued to ponder the Southwest, producing the New Mexico Recollections series of paintings that reprised the subject in unconventional ways, including the use of atypical color and little detail.

C. Paul Jennewein (American, born in Germany, 1890–1978)
Indian and Eagle, 1929
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2011.439

Gene Kloss (born Alice Geneva Glasier; American, 1903–1996)
In the Rio Grande Gorge, ca. 1950
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Funds from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2018.33

The only woman artist represented in the exhibition, Gene Kloss made many paintings and prints of the western landscape she first saw on her honeymoon in New Mexico in 1925. She returned to Taos for several months every year thereafter until she made it her permanent home in 1960. Like several artists in this section, she was employed by the federal government’s Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal.

Thomas Hart Benton (American, 1889–1975)
New Mexico (Landscape), 1926
Oil and egg tempera on Masonite
Denver Art Museum: Funds from Helen Dill bequest, 1937.2

By the 1920s, train transportation was no longer a novelty, and many American tourists, including Thomas Hart Benton, traveled by automobile. The train, however, remained a symbol of progress and adventure. Here, Benton depicts a smoke-billowing train slicing through rural New Mexico. Later, when Benton wrote about his travels in An Artist in America, he described the train as “the prime space cutter and therefore the great symbol of change.”

Maynard Dixon (American, 1875–1946)
Wide Lands of the Navajo, 1945
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.100

John Sloan (American, 1871–1951)
Gateway to Cerrillos, 1946
Mixed media on panel
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2006.73

By the mid-20th century, Santa Fe, New Mexico, had become solidified as a haven for many modernist artists, thanks to figures like Robert Henri who had championed the state capital as a creative center. His former student John Sloan came to the city in 1919 with Randall Davey. This scene depicts nature and humanity coexisting as two figures—perhaps the artist and his wife—paint beside the road winding through a rocky outcrop.

Maynard Dixon (American, 1875–1946)
Study in Cubist Realism, 1925
Oil on panel
Lent by Grant and Betty Hagestad, 43.2009

On this decorative screen, Maynard Dixon simplifies a mountain into its basic angles and uses only two colors: orange for the light and a dark blue for the shadows. Although European artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had invented cubism about fifteen years before, when Dixon painted this screen it was an early example of cubism in the American West.

Andrew Dasburg (American, 1887–1979)
Bonnie, 1927
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Lucile and Donald Graham Collection, 1981.624

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