Creating the American West title

During the early to mid-1800s, intrepid artist-explorers, some of whom were hired by US government-funded expeditions, journeyed into the American West. These Euro-American artists faced difficult journeys over rough terrain. They carried minimal supplies, such as notebooks and drawing or watercolor materials, and made plein air (outdoor) studies. They used these sketches as references to create larger and often dramatized paintings upon their return east. Tasked with recreating the factual details of the land, they were also challenged to capture the experience of the West—the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, the vastness of the plains, and the unfamiliar forms of bison—within the limited space of a painted canvas. Such works, widely disseminated as prints and as illustrations in newspapers, proved popular to eastern and international audiences and established many symbols of the American West that remain current today.

Euro-American settlers followed these early artist-explorers west in search of opportunity and land, resulting in both greater cultural exchange and significant tensions with the Indigenous peoples who had lived there for centuries.

Alfred Jacob Miller (American, 1810–1874)
Shoshone Indians at a Mountain Lake (Lake Fremont), 1860–70
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Exchange and purchase from Erich Kohlberg, 1961.25 

Alfred Jacob Miller trained in Paris and Italy and, in 1837, was one of the earliest Euro-American artists to journey into the American West. This painting of the Wind River mountains in Wyoming features the theatrical composition and sensitive color of European Romanticism, which emphasized stimulating a viewer’s emotional response to a subject. When he returned to his studio on the East Coast, Miller would depict from memory a West that is peaceful and beautiful: an emerald-green lake from which several Shoshone water their horses surrounded by lush banks and purple mountains.

William Jacob Hays (American, 1830–1875)
Herd of Buffalo, 1862
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Funds from Fred E. Gates, 1960.39

A dozen bison mingle within a thick haze in this painting by William Jacob Hays, a noted naturalist. It is unclear whether this mysterious atmosphere is caused by a morning fog or the dusty soil of the prairie, kicked up by the herd. Hays records the physical characteristics of this uniquely American animal by painting it from twelve different angles. The silhouette of the immense bison in the foreground contrasts with the warmth of the light, dancing with the particles of dust or fog.

James Walker (American, born in England, 1819–1889)
Cowboys Roping a Bear, ca. 1877
Oil on canvas
Denver Art Museum: Funds from Fred E. Gates, 1955.87

After a career as a military illustrator and painter, James Walker moved to California. Fascinated by the legacy of the Spanish, who first explored the area in the 1600s, Walker turned his attention from battle scenes to Spanish American ranch life. Roping bears was undertaken for sport as well as to manage predator populations. Here, Walker has tempered a violent and difficult subject with smoothly choreographed lines and the rhythm of undulating circles.

Chelsea Kaiah (Uncompahgre Ute and White Mountain Apache):

While James Walker wanted to preserve the vaqueros’ mastery of riding a horse and roping, it’s important to realize the consequences of protecting and claiming land for the sake of cattle farming. In this painting, made around 1877, the vaqueros are roping a California grizzly; a decade later, in 1889, the California grizzly would be on the brink of extinction. Sadly, in the early 1900s, it would be officially extinct. Simultaneously, buffaloes nearly met extinction in 1889 as they competed with cattle for land.

To this day, there are debates on reintroducing grizzlies to the California ecosystem. The main concern is often that the coexistence of bears and humans would not be safe. But the coexistence of bears and humans is part of long-standing beliefs and traditions in Native tribes.

The Ute tribe has a springtime celebration called the Bear Dance—it celebrates the end of winter. A wooden instrument mimics the scratching of a bear. Like a lot of Native dancing, the Bear Dance copies a certain animal’s movements while paying respect to it. The dance is a culturally important event that connects the Ute bands in Utah and southern Colorado.

Grizzlies are ecologically important to the American landscape, just as Native people are. There needs to be action and acknowledgment that it is important both for Native people and for the animals we celebrate to have rights to our ancestral homelands.

Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo):

Every day I am enraged as I stand in the crumbling wake of the front lines of colonialism/patriarchy. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been directly affected by or hasn’t somehow internalized those systems. I know I have.

My life’s work is wondering why.

What makes someone capable of inflicting pain on another being?

I know full well that I am that bear being roped in the dust, rigid in fear. I also cannot deny that I am also those men with lassos in hands, commanding those panicked horses with heartless, entitled dominance. The bear represents my justified rage, my natural instinct like the one that comes from mothering.

But maybe those men are reflecting my denied fear, pompous and blundering. Maybe the heartless men are a mirror of my denied self-love—denied to the point that they hold the key to rape and pillage myself and all that I love.

This work of art is important as an honest iteration of a time—a time when there was pride in this ugly behavior. But wait, is it over?

This piece offers the opportunity to see our own internal workings, the ones where we have allowed all this suffering to happen, where we are all held accountable to the terrified bear within us all. Cut the ropes, let her scratch. Let her roar. She is angry, and rightfully so.

John Quincy Adams Ward (American, 1830–1910)
Indian Hunter, modeled 1860, cast ca. 1885
Denver Art Museum: Funds from 2009 Collectors’ Choice in honor of Lewis I. Sharp and the Mabel Y. Hughes Charitable Trust, 2009.796

John Quincy Adams Ward identified his subjects as Native Americans more clearly than his teacher Henry Kirke Brown, whose sculpture The Choosing of the Arrow is on view at the entrance of the exhibition. In this bronze and Indian Chief nearby, attire and accessories such as buffalo robes, buckskin, a feather headdress, and a canine hunting helper are signifiers of Indigenous cultures.

John Quincy Adams Ward (American, 1830–1910)
Indian Chief, ca. 1860
Denver Art Museum: Gift from Estelle Rae Wolf and the Harry I. and Edythe Smookler Memorial Endowment Fund in honor of Lewis I. Sharp, 2001.634

The powerful physiques of some Native American men rendered them, to Euro-American eyes, comparable to classical Greek and Roman statuary, as seen in this upright figure. Such idealization, however, disguised the realities of cultural and political differences between tribes. Instead, it presented a symbol of the paradoxical “noble savage,” a poetic figure living in close communion with nature who, by virtue of such natural purity, was considered unfit to exist in the modern white man’s world.

John Mix Stanley (American, 1814–1872)
Group of Piegan Indians, 1867
Oil on canvas
Lent by the Denver Public Library, Western History Department, 34.2008

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