Creating the American West title


The American West has long been a dynamic place of cultural exchange and artistic production, throughout thousands of years of precolonial Indigenous presence, the period of Spanish exploration and conquest in the mid-1600s, and modern times. When Euro-American artists first visited the region during the 1800s, they marveled at its ancient landscapes and myriad civilizations. Paintings and sculptures from the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum reveal this creative interest in the region during the United States’ westward expansion and into the mid-20th century. Most of the artists represented here spent years studying in Europe—predominantly Italy, Germany, and France. They returned to the United States, however, determined to distinguish themselves through uniquely American subjects. Their combination of closely observed detail and creative license in the resulting works reveal an array of aesthetic approaches. Regardless of style, some depictions helped foster a Euro-American identity rooted in a pioneering spirit of adventure and opportunity, which ultimately led to a doctrine of manifest destiny and the myth of American exceptionalism. This exhibition encourages viewers to explore the nuances of a complex American West, including both its challenging history—especially regarding the involuntary displacement of Native Americans—and its vibrant and diverse natural beauty.

The Frist Art Museum engaged with many Indigenous people during our fall 2019 presentation of Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists. Because Indigenous figures and culture are represented in works of art made by Euro-American artists in this exhibition, we invited several of our advisers to offer their perspectives on what is depicted. In foregrounding Indigenous voices, we hope to offer a more inclusive narrative for our guests.

The Frist Art Museum’s building sits on land that Cherokee and Shawnee Native peoples and elders call their homeland. We acknowledge and pay respect to them. We also acknowledge and offer deep gratitude to the ancestral land and water that support us. 

Henry Kirke Brown (American, 1814–1886)
The Choosing of the Arrow, 1849
Denver Art Museum: Funds from Mrs. Hayes Lyon, Cyril Farny, Helen Dill bequest, an anonymous bequest, and other donors, by exchange, 1996.32

This was one of the first bronze sculptures to be cast in the United States, and it heralded what would become a rich tradition of capturing western American subjects in the material. Traveling to Michigan’s Mackinac Island, on Lake Huron, Henry Kirke Brown was among the earliest Euro-American sculptors to observe Indigenous peoples firsthand. The graceful pose of this idealized young man is very similar to ancient Greek and Italian Renaissance sculpture, which Brown would have seen when he studied in Rome and Florence. The figure is captured in contrapposto, his weight shifted on one foot and his hips tilted. Only the bow, quiver, and arrows suggest that the figure is Indigenous.

Charles Bird King (American, 1785–1862)
Hayne Hudjihini (Eagle of Delight), ca. 1822
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.462

After the American Revolution, US government policy, growing industry, and economic opportunities drew migrating settlers westward. By 1845, the ideology (and terminology) of manifest destiny—that white Americans had divine justification to expand across and settle the continent—was established. Underlying the optimism of this doctrine was inexorable conflict with Indigenous people, whose tribal lands and sovereignty were increasingly under threat. Governmental responses ranged from negotiation to armed conflict and intentional disease transmission. Officials sometimes hosted delegations of Indigenous leaders in Washington, DC, hoping both to build relationships and to intimidate. Artists were commissioned to make portraits of these visitors, including this Great Plains woman, the wife of an Otoe leader.

Kennetha Greenwood (Otoe-Missouria) and America Meredith (Cherokee Nation):

Hayne Hudjihini (Eagle of Delight), the youngest of the five wives of Otoe Chief Sų Manyi Kathi (Prairie Wolf), accompanied a delegation to Washington, DC, to meet President James Monroe in 1821. Before the couple’s 1822 return to Nebraska, Charles Bird King painted portraits of her and her husband. Formal portraits of Native American women were rare during this era, so fortunately King painted several versions. Most have a dark background, but this version stands out with its evening sky with a hint of foliage.

The Otoe (Jiwere, “Those Who Arrived”), Missouria (Nut’achi, “Died in the Water”), and Ioway all split from the Ho-Chunk near the Great Lakes in the 16th century. By the 18th century’s end, the Missouria rejoined the Otoe, who were successful traders along the Missouri River. Although these tribes were patriarchal, Otoe-Missouria women enjoyed more rights and freedoms than their European counterparts.

Born around 1792, Hayne Hudjihini was a chief’s daughter, and her attire reflects her family’s wealth. Her imported dress follows European fashion. Strands of white shells strung with black seed beads are threaded along her earlobes. Silver jewelry, such as her bracelet, continues to be worn by Otoe women, as do layers of beaded necklaces. The red mineral paint on her hair and hairline embodies a prayer for protection. Otoe women still wear red face paint for formal occasions.

Tragically, Hayne Hudjihini died from measles shortly after her return home, but her descendants are prominent citizens of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe today.

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