Creating the American West title

By the turn of the twentieth century, railroads and barbed wire had put an end to the open-range cattle era of the American West. Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, arguably the most influential western artists of this period, witnessed these changes. In the words of Remington, “I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever, and the more I considered the subject the bigger the Forever loomed.” While lamenting the passing of an era, they—as well as many other painters, illustrators, and sculptors—ensured that the memory of an idealized “Old West” lived on. Underscored by nostalgia for a seemingly simpler and nobler time, the often-stereotyped characters and plots proved to be common material for Wild West shows, popular fiction, and cinema.

The stories of the West are, in truth, quite complicated. For many people, life there was marked by difficult changes in lifestyle and forced migration. While the Old West endures as an important part of American history, cowboy life and Indigenous culture remain vibrant into the present day.

Charles Marion Russell (American, 1864–1926)
In the Enemy’s Country, 1921
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of the Magness family in memory of Betsy Magness, 1991.751

Because of his experience working with cattle, his friendship with Native Americans, and his talent with paintbrush and clay, the self-taught Charles Marion Russell became a preeminent artist of the Old West. While Russell’s subjects were meticulously observed, they were also a product of a natural storyteller’s lively imagination. Here, he captures the glowing jewel tones of Montana skies and confident yet careful Kootenai hunters striding alongside their horses, which are draped to appear like bison, through enemy Blackfeet country.

Frederic Remington (American, 1861–1909)
A Blackfoot Indian, 1888
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.139

Like Charles Marion Russell, Frederic Remington had very little formal training in the arts. Although he traveled fairly often to the West, he chose to remain in New York for most of his adult life. While his most notable work Broncho Buster (on view nearby) is a bronze sculpture, he began his career as an illustrator and painter. A Blackfoot Indian is an early work and far more detailed in comparison to Remington’s later paintings, in which he employs rapid, broken brushstrokes.

Frederic Remington (American, 1861–1909)
The Broncho Buster, modeled 1895, cast before May 1902 (Roman Bronze Works, cast number 12)
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.91

A well-established illustrator and painter of the American West, Frederic Remington also produced some of the most iconic bronzes in American history. Here, he deftly captures the danger of riding an untamed horse. Compare this bronze with Charles Marion Russell’s A Bronc Twister nearby, another example of how artists attempted the difficult task of expressing the intensity of the horse-and-man relationship in three dimensions. More broadly, the subject of bronc riding can be read as a metaphor for taming the West.

Frank Tenney Johnson (American, 1874–1939)
The Trail Boss, 1920
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.107

Indigenous people and some Euro-Americans alike witnessed with a sense of sadness the changes that led to the fencing and agricultural settlement of the West. As they grappled with a rapidly industrializing nation, many artists romanticized the West’s past, exploiting its narrative qualities and drawing on sensational stories about the closing of the frontier. They created a visual lexicon of the American Old West that celebrated individual freedom, vast landscapes, and hard work, as represented in this painting, but often ignored the complicated and violent history of imperial expansion.

Charles Marion Russell (American, 1864–1926)
Buffalo Hunt, 1898
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Gift of Sharon Magness, 1997.517

At age sixteen, Charles Marion Russell moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to what was then the Montana Territory. Russell worked in the cattle business from 1882 to 1893 before pursuing painting full-time as a self-taught artist. The development of his color palette is evident in this rather monochromatic work when compared to In the Enemy’s Country, made twenty-three years later, on view nearby. Buffalo Hunt contains the same compositional dynamism, though, giving the viewer a sense of apprehension.

Alexander Phimister Proctor (American, born in Canada, 1860–1950)
Buffalo, modeled 1912, cast 1913 or after
Denver Art Museum: Funds from the Harry I. and Edythe Smookler Memorial Endowment, Estelle Wolf, and the Flower Foundation, 2011.276

Harvey T. Dunn (American, 1884–1952)
The Chuckwagon, 1915
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.1144

The masculine grit and dangerous adventure of western life served as enticing subject matter in books, periodicals, and magazines. But these were not the only kinds of western tales. Harvey Dunn’s The Chuckwagon displays the quieter aspects of life on the range. Cowboys sit cross-legged as they prepare to eat a communal meal—probably beans and coffee. The panorama behind them depicts hazy mountain ranges that complement the bedrolls in the foreground and give the scene a pastoral setting.

Charles Marion Russell (American, 1864–1926)
A Bronc Twister (The Weaver), modeled 1911, cast ca. 1935–41
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.123

A Bronc Twister is a testament to Charles Marion Russell’s ability to render motion and strength in three dimensions.  Working at a cattle ranch in the Montana Territory offered him the opportunity to become familiar with the anatomy of the animals he later depicted, including buffalo and horses.

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916)
Sketch of a Cowboy at Work, ca. 1887
Oil on canvas on Masonite
Denver Art Museum: Funds from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2008.489

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916)
Cowboy: Study for Cowboys in the Badlands, ca. 1887
Oil on canvas on panel
Denver Art Museum: Funds from William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2008.490

A highly respected American artist, Thomas Eakins was devastated when he was dismissed from his teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts because of a scandal involving the perceived inappropriate use of nude models in 1886. Needing a change of scenery, he traveled to Dakota Territory during the summer of 1887 and made countless photographs and oil sketches. This quickly painted sketch was later used to create a larger cowboy-themed work when Eakins was back in his East Coast studio.

Alexander Phimister Proctor (American, born in Canada, 1860–1950)
Buckaroo, 1914, cast 1915 or after
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2005.12

N. C. Wyeth (American, 1882–1945)
Gunfight, ca. 1916
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.443

An increasingly educated public and innovations in printing technology ushered in the Golden Age of Illustration (1880–1920). During this time, the most widely circulated images featured high drama played out by epic-sized characters. N. C. Wyeth’s painting of a saloon fight presents a larger-than-life vision of a bygone era, peopled with unlawful and unruly stereotypes. It illustrated Frank Spearman’s 1916 western novel Nan of Music Mountain, which was adapted as a silent film the following year.

William H. D. Koerner (American, 1878–1938)
Illustration for the Saturday Evening Post, “The Tenth Law,” Don’t You Go Frettin’, Sallie, I’ll Tend To It, 1922
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.121

Allen Tupper True (American, 1881–1955)
A Wanderlust Memory, ca. 1912
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Funds from Helen Dill bequest, 1936.2

Solon Hannibal Borglum (American, 1868–1922)
Lassoing Wild Horses, modeled 1898, cast 1902
Denver Art Museum: Funds from the William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange, 2011.9

William Herbert Dunton (American, 1878–1936)
The Open Range, 1914
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Roath Collection, 2013.94

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